It seems rather convenient, at first blush, that talk of a players' association in the Canadian Hockey League crops up just as the NHL seems headed for a lockout.
Nothing is cut-and-dried, of course. It's not a newsflash that major junior hockey is an odd business where the franchises are run for profit like big-league teams but the players are boys and young men. There is the potential, no matter how good the intentions, for a person to be taken advantage of or be in the dark about his rights, just like in any workforce composed primarily of young people. They are entitled to something for their labour, period, full stop. Still, one would think if there was a drive to have a players' association to represent the nearly 1,500 players in the CHL, it would be spearheaded by agents with a lot of clients in the league and insiders wouldn't have been taken by surprise by the news. Still, because it's the dog days of August, it merits attention.
Sandra Slater, a consultant for the Canadian Hockey League Players Association (CHLPA), expects the group to go public within 10 days. The CHLPA aims to create better representation for junior hockey players regarding rights, education packages and compensation for their use in league branding as well as CHL and Hockey Canada events, particularly, the World Junior Hockey Championship.
"The CHL is big business. They make millions of dollars a year and these kids make it for them," said Slater. "Hockey Canada is a big part of this as well."
If a 60 per cent majority of players accept the union, Slater says the CHL will have no choice but to recognize it by law.
... The CHLPA's mission statement says: "The goal for the PA is to achieve a fair and economically sound education package without restrictions for each player. To not only negotiate with the CHL but with Hockey Canada as well for the use of the players in international events to help support a better education package for all the players of the PA.
"The PA feels that there is no reason why players should have so many restrictions on the use of their education packages. As it stands now the player upon finishing his playing career must execute that package in 18 months or forfeit it. That is one of the many unacceptable conditions in the standard contract." (Peterborough Examiner)
There are fair questions about whether juniors are entitled to a piece of action from, say, the licence to print money that is a world junior tournament held in Canada. (Much of that is reinvested into youth hockey.) Or CHL players' images being used in EA Sports' NHL video game, for that matter.
With respect to education packages, though, the CHL has said that in a given year, about 1,000 former players are using their scholarship money. Some individual teams can conceivably budget up to $100,000 per year to cover tuition for former players. The Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts have established their own hockey academy to help players with their schooling. (That's a pretty good idea, since most OHLers enter the league in Grade 11, which is a critical year in secondary school education, often the make-or-break point between becoming a good student or being weeded out.) At the same time, OHL grad Luke Lynes, who now plays for the CIS powerhouse University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds, told the Boston Globe last year that some "midlevel players" (the paper's phrasing) are not looked after to the same extent as players who were early-round choices out of minor hockey. That was just one opinion, of course, but it should not be ignored.
However, anyone who can work the Google on the Internet machine could string that together and get their Norma Rae on. The most telling comments in the above story come from current Peterborough Petes goalie Andrew D'Agostini, pointing out that while the pay in junior is hardly great (which is why a lot of players have summer jobs), their needs are tended to.
D'Agostini said a QMJHL player he trains with mentioned [the CHLPA] one day but that's the extent of his knowledge. He admits to mixed feelings. He says players should be compensated for the use of their image and he wouldn't turn down more money but he says: "I can't complain about the things I have gotten out of this league. The experience of playing for Team Canada. Playing in the Subway Series. You're always decked out in nice gear and are given free stuff. I'm sure I have gone through thousands of dollars worth of hockey sticks alone. I know I have been well taken care of. I don't know what to say."
[Ottawa Senators first-round pick Matt] Puempel said he's joked with players about the need for a union, but the CHLPA is news to him.
"I have never heard about this," Puempel said. "It's a pretty good idea, I think, but I don't know how it would work when you're only in the league for three or four years at a time. I have a lot of contact with guys around the league and they have never brought it up."
Point being, it's not a subject that should be dismissed out of hand but it sounds a little too good to be true. Getting 60 per cent of CHL players to sign a union card within a short timeframe would be exceedingly difficult, especially when one factors in that most count on advice from agents and parents who likely have strong feelings about unions. Is a player who's on the bubble to stick with his team, or an overager who's out of the league next season, going to sign? And how would a CHLPA withhold services and risk losing valuable development time?
It sounds like a decent idea, if rather far-fetched.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.