The inner workings of a union are often secretive. It comes with the territory when protecting the best interests of your members.
It seems the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association has taken this secrecy to a whole new level. It’s so secret, in fact, that of the 15 players contacted by Yahoo! Sports in the three member leagues – OHL, QMJHL and WHL – only two said they had heard about it prior to Monday.
On Tuesday, former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque was hired as the new executive director of the CHLPA. He was not voted into the position by his membership, because there isn’t one. No junior hockey union has been certified.
Saginaw Spirit veteran Brandon Archibald said he found out about the players allegedly forming a union via Twitter.
“I’ve been trying to read all the articles to figure out what’s been happening,” said Archibald on Tuesday afternoon. “From the people I’ve talked to, no one knows what’s going on.”
But according to the alleged union’s spokesperson Derek Clarke, these players are in the minority and the groundwork for this venture were laid 14 months ago. An email request for an interview with CHLPA consultant Sandra Slater was not returned.
“Every team knows about it,” Clarke told the Windsor Star. “99.9 per cent of the players on active rosters last year know about it.
“We’ve asked them to keep quiet until we put in our application and made a presentation to the CHL.”
When asked how difficult it would be for teenaged hockey players to keep this kind of secret from one another for 14 months, Archibald laughed.
“It would be very hard, especially in our league,” said the 20-year-old, who was on Saginaw’s roster last year. “They could have gotten older guys who could keep secrets – but I pretty much think it’s next to impossible to keep something this big a secret for 14 months.
“I talked to guys on our team. So unless they’re lying to me, I don’t know what’s going on.”
One OHL player, however, said a man saying he represented the union had contacted him unexpectedly three weeks ago. The man, who gave only his first name according to the player, asked if the veteran wanted to become his team’s representative. The player declined.
“I respect what they are doing, but at the end of the day the OHL is still such a great league," said the player, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want trouble from the league or union. "You get free equipment, you get free travel and you get your education paid for. I just like playing hockey, whether it’s getting more money or not. It doesn’t really matter to me.”
He said the agent told him that one of the main issues for the union would be getting more money for the players.
“They wanted to, I guess, give the players more revenue from the major events that the league makes money from. So, like the Memorial Cup, the world juniors, all-star games and jersey sales and stuff like that,” said the player.
The player said he believes the union also might have contacted one of his other teammates, but he was not sure.
“For me it was more about (my coach and team owner),” said the player, who adds that he intends to use his school package. “They have done so much for me that I think this would have been a slap in the face to them for joining this and trying to get more money out of it. They’ve already given me so much. For me, it was more of a personal decision.”
Another player in the CHL said he, too, was contacted about joining the union.
“I was given a hazy call last week about joining the CHLPA,” said the player, who did not want his name used. “(They) then followed up with an unprofessional email with no credentials.”
He didn’t bother to follow up.
And while the proposed union said they have enough signatures – some 60 per cent of players across the CHL – the issue legally might not be so cut-and-dried.
The main sticking point according to lawyers in Ontario isn’t in dealing with minors, since many of the players are under 18, but rather with whether the players would be considered “employees” of their clubs. Generally the players receive weekly pay – somewhere between $50 and $100 – from their teams.
“The most fundamental question is whether these players are employees or amateur athletes who receive some kind of stipend,” wrote Eric Tucker, a labour law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, via email. “If they are not employees, then unionization under labour law is not an option. If they are employees, then their age would not be an issue.”
In order to be certified as a union in Ontario, the group would have to go to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to apply with 40 per cent of the players signed up. The Labour Relations Board would carry out a number of tests, including whether or not they are employees, before certification could occur.
“The Labour Relations Act applies a different test than say the Employment Standards Act does,” said Matt Blajer, an Ontario Ministry of Labour spokesperson. “For the Employment Standards Act, we’d have to have one of our officers go out there and make a determination if they’re employees or not. There are certain tests they have to meet.”
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According to Voy Stelmaszynski, a solicitor with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, there are numerous tests conducted, but not all of those tests need to be passed in order to be certified.
“That’s where it’s kind of murky, let’s say,” said Stelmaszynski. “Sometimes it’s a weighing of factors, so not all the tests have to be met or not all the factors in each test have to be met each time.”
Confused yet? Well, there’s still a judicial review in which either side could challenge the determination in court. In a complex case such as this, with both sides eager to keep their interests intact, this process could keep the case in court for some time.
“If you started at the Labour Board today and you wanted to have the Supreme Court of Canada hear (the case) then you’d go through all the levels of court … it could take up to six or eight years,” said Stelmaszynski. “Those kids would be in the NHLPA by then.
“It’s a very long and slow process and not everybody can afford it, and not everybody does it. Certainly, many of those certification cases start and end at the Labour Board and never go any higher.”