As major junior hockey continues to find itself on the wrong side of history, we’ve learned that the OHL and the Niagara IceDogs have come to a settlement with respect to the team’s violation of the league’s recruitment rules. The IceDogs have agreed to pay a fine of $150,000 and will lose their first-round pick in 2021. By comparison, the IceDogs actually got off lightly. Seven years ago, the OHL fined the Windsor Spitfires $400,000 and took away three first-round picks and two second-rounders for violating recruitment rules.
Well, now, isn’t that interesting? The OHL, along with its partners in the QMJHL and WHL, have been spending the past couple of years convincing the public that many of their teams are mom-and-pop operations that would not survive without the help of “student athletes” and that to pay them any more than poverty wages would put some of their teams in peril. They’re fighting a class action lawsuit with everything they have and in many cases have successfully lobbied lawmakers to accommodate their needs when it comes to rewriting labor laws. All the while, they’re waving the flag that this beautiful Canadian institution of junior hockey is threatened if its owners are forced to pay players.
By virtue of the fact that they were both found guilty, the IceDogs and Spitfires suggests they did have a few extra bucks around to compensate players outside the league rules. And the same league that claims its teams can’t pay players minimum wage has no problem lowering the boom on one of its own to the tune of $150,000. Based on a roster of 20 players, with each player making $60 per week, that fine would cover an organization’s player payroll costs for 125 weeks, which is the equivalent of almost four seasons.
To assume that every player who is skating on the 54 teams that make up the CHL is doing so within the confines of player recruitment rules is a fantasy. And personally, I have zero problem with it. These teenagers are the show and they are the ones most driving revenues, yet they’re the only employees in the building who aren’t receiving at least minimum wage. If they can squeeze these teams for more money in return, all the more power to them in that quest. And there are teams that have the money to do just that, otherwise nobody would ever get disciplined for violating player recruitment rules.
It’s entirely coincidental that this ruling has come down at this time of the year – with the playoffs in the OHL kicking off tonight and the post-seasons in the WHL and QMJHL starting Friday night. The playoffs are when teams jack up their prices and make the most money. In the series that pits the Sudbury Wolves against the Mississauga Steelheads, the two teams play Friday night and Saturday night in Sudbury. Then those teenagers will get on a bus and travel about 250 miles to play in Mississauga on Sunday night. Three games, plus travel, in three days. Sure hope those kids don’t have any assignments due in school Monday morning. But on the plus side, at least the three most lucrative nights for junior hockey will be filled.
It’s been said in this corner before and it bears repeating. The way major junior hockey operates by making money on the backs of teenagers’ dreams and how it plays the small-town identity card and gets away with it is unseemly and unnecessary. Canada does not need 54 major junior teams to stock the NHL, particularly when so few players in major junior hockey actually go on to play pro hockey. Do some markets struggle financially? Of course they do. But junior hockey has never done one thing to promote revenue sharing so the more-affluent teams of the world can help out the less-affluent organizations.
You see, having a major junior hockey in your town is not a birthright. Just ask the people of North Bay, Cornwall, Estevan and Granby, who all lost their teams either because the owners couldn’t make enough money from them or politicians in those places wouldn’t build them new arenas. If junior hockey really cared about its markets, teams would never move. People in those markets either have to start paying higher ticket prices or face losing their teams. Small-town Canada is no more entitled to have a major junior team than the city of Quebec is to have an NHL team.
And penalizing the heavy hitters who use their financial muscle to recruit players isn’t going to solve this. It’s time junior hockey started paying its players a living wage and allowed the consumers and corporate supporters in each market decide how badly they want junior hockey.