If owners of Canada’s major junior teams are being honest with themselves, they ought to be happy they’ve enjoyed an incredibly successful financial run without the nuisance of player unions or inconvenient questions about the divvying up of their considerable revenues.
Those days aren’t at a complete end – at least, not this moment – but the emergence of a Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association this week signals the welcome dawning of a new era that should lead to better benefits for young men who for too long have served as slabs of meat for a romanticized grinder.
Now, that’s not to suggest junior hockey under commissioner David Branch (one of the most progressive minds in hockey) hasn’t made admirable strides in giving their players more than just an on-ice experience. It has. Branch has been a leader in concussion management, drug and doping programs in the Ontario, Quebec and Western Leagues and has worked with the 60 team owners under the CHL umbrella to provide a paid education tuition package for players interested in providing insurance for their post-hockey lives.
That’s a number of steps forward from the singularly focused entity Canadian junior once was, but let’s not kid ourselves, either. The nearly 1,500 players in any given CHL season are still earning a stipend of just $50 a week for their services (in addition to room and board with a local billet) – an incredible pittance for the amount of money they help generate for team owners.
Fifty dollars a week for kids who spend dozens of hours practicing and even more time riding buses for hours to travel to games? Fifty dollars a week for their public appearances, media interviews, a 68-to-72-game regular-season schedule and playoffs?
To me, that sounds much closer to indentured servitude than a fair business arrangement.
But here’s the thing about the CHLPA – they’re not looking to land big-time paydays, or even garner a living wage for that matter. Their first stated goal is to make the CHL’s education package more realistic in how it deals with and appeals to the average player who doesn’t go on to a big-time, bigger-money professional career.
Right now, CHL players can have up to four years of post-secondary education paid for, but they have to be enrolled in a program within a year-and-a-half after they cease to be a part of their junior organization. That doesn’t work for a lot of players, especially the ones who aren’t NHL draft picks, yet still wish to continue to chase their hockey dreams.
The reality for those players is that they might play a season or two in the American League, or the ECHL, or maybe log time in a semi-pro league in Europe for a few years before they have no choice but to enter into the non-hockey workforce and scratch out a living like the rest of us. At that point, they’re likely to be in their mid-twenties or older and have families to support – and that’s precisely the time a paid-for education would really represent a needed lifeline for them.
Yet under the current arrangement, those players don’t have access to the money that was available to them when they were useful and valued by CHL team owners. That’s incredibly unfair and ought to change so a player can build up an “education bank account” of some sort he could use whenever he needed it.
Of course, such a change would take a bigger chunk out of owners’ profits, but profits haven’t had many chunks taken out of them since the NHL feeder system of junior hockey was invented. What decades ago could be a mom-and-pop operation depending on the city a CHL team was located in has now become big business across the board. Gleaming, multi-million dollar, near NHL-quality arenas are happily built by towns. Satellite TV package money and corporate sponsorships have boosted profits big-time.
Despite all of that, the same meager crumbs are being tossed to the players. Why should they continue to just shut up and accept that? Moreover, why do you think so many former junior players who went on to star in the NHL use their millions to become part-owners of CHL teams? I’ll tell you why: they’ve been on the other, unfortunate side of that financial equation and understand where all the money is going.
The fledgling CHLPA (under recently announced president and former NHL tough guy Georges Laraque) has already experienced some public relations bumps and may eventually wither and crumble under pressure from the owners.
However, that a union was formed in the first place represents a crossing of the Rubicon for the CHL. No longer can those team owners simply assume the status quo will be acceptable for players. Just as we’re seeing in the U.S. with the millions of dollars generated by collegiate athletes who are similarly underpaid, junior hockey people now understand and aren’t afraid to raise the topic of a better arrangement for the labor side of the business.
That can only be a good thing for players, parents and true fans of these young men, so few of whom ascend to hockey’s professional peak. If they can’t become NHLers, the least the CHL and those who support it owe them is the chance at a normal life when reality delivers the biggest bodycheck of all.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.