There can be little doubt there is a push to form a players' association in major junior hockey. Far be it to suggest the organizers of the Canadian Hockey League Players' Association might have put the cart in front of the horse.
Typically, a union starts with getting workers to agree they need one and then working to define goals. In the 48 hours since a Las Vegas-based The Junior Hockey News posted the CHLPA's press release, two threads have been established. One, the CHLPA is hoping to make the education packages available to junior players more uniform across the board, which is a laudable goal. Two, by and large the players the union would need to sign on seem to know little about it, which seems rather odd to anyone who knows about teenagers' abilities to keep a secret.
On top of that is a concern that greater player costs could be a death knell for some small-market franchises.
At least there is a clearly defined goal. From Doug Smith:
The fledgling association is taking dead aim at the educational programs put in place by the OHL, QMJHL and WHL as well as the financial windfall that goes to the CHL for all of its national and international events. The prime focus of the association would be on modifying the current educational packages available to junior players.
Educational packages vary from player to player, team to team and league to league. The new association would like to standardize those packages for all players, regardless of where they go on to play professionally, if they do.
The organization wants the package to be available for a longer period — it currently has to be used within less than two years of a player's junior career. One hope is that it can be available at the end of whatever career a graduating junior has, said [spokesman Derek] Clarke.
They would like the fund available immediately to players who may not want to further their education and, Clarke said, they would like any money to be available in an "entrepreneurial package" rather than solely for post-secondary education.
The [Peterborough Examiner] story also quoted a CHLPA press release as stating, "the player's support on this venture has been overwhelming and we fully expect to have the majority of players signed up within the next coming days." (Toronto Star)
At this point, one should pump the brakes and acknowledge it's nebulous whether junior players could even unionize.
From Robert MacLeod:
Mark Geiger, a labour lawyer at Blaney McMurtry in Toronto, said from a jurisdictional standpoint, the formation of a new union would be difficult.
"I'm not sure that the players are employees within the meaning of the [Ontario] Labour Relations Act," he said. "They don't get a salary, they get a stipend, but it's not even remotely close to the minimums under the Employment Standards Act." (Globe & Mail)
It's still strange there were not weeks of rumours. It is one thing for the Ontario Hockey League to keep a tight seal on its investigation of the Windsor Spitifres for recruiting irregularities. It's another for this story to break with few knowing more than simply what's got out in the media. Yet that appears to be the case across the board.
From Steve Ewen:
"That's the only thing I've heard about it," veteran [Vancouver] Giants defenceman Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, 20, said. "I've haven't heard anymore.
"If there was something happening right away, you'd think we'd know."
[Vancouver's] Brendan Gallagher, who is expected to forgo his 20-year-old campaign to play in the Montreal Canadiens system after four seasons with the GIants, admits players had been "joking in the dressing room for years," about a union, but admits the news from Peterborough caught him off guard.
... Prominent player agent Gerry Johannson maintained that he "had heard rumblings, but I don't know the guys involved."
"You probably know as much as I do," said the Edmonton-based Johannson, who, through the years, has represented Giants like Gallagher, Milan Lucic and Spencer Machacek. (Vancouver Province)
At the very least, this at least enough legs to be more than a non-story story for a slow news day in mid-August. Junior players' education packages shouldn't come with too many strings attached. And it's not like anyone suggest the CHL's model is perfect. The business model that enables it to operate teams in smallish communities of fewer than 40,000 people such as Owen Sound, Ont., Prince Albert and Swift Current, Sask., and Bathurst, N.B., essentially depends on fixed player costs. The rank-and-file players, parents and advisers, for generations, have been willing to go along with it for a chance at cashing in the winning lottery ticket of a NHL career.
It's good that there is greater awareness that may no longer suffice. Every junior player deserves a strong safety net as a reward for spending his teens as a marketable commodity. It's not shilling for the CHL, though, to point out that any change that escalates the costs of doing business could have unintended consequences. It could make it much tougher for a number of teams that already run on a break-even (at best) basis, which could even lead to a commensurate loss of CHL roster spots.
It is too early in the game to get that dire, though. This should at least foment some discussion about how to compensate players properly without putting the Owen Sounds and Swift Currents out of existence.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.