While testifying before a senate labor committee in Washington last week, Everett Silvertips president Gary Gelinas warned lawmakers that if the four Western League teams in the state were forced to pay their players minimum wage, “We would have to evaluate whether or not we would continue to stay in the state of Washington.”
Silvertips GM Garry Davidson was clearly singing from the same songbook when he told legislators if the state did not exempt the teams from minimum wage laws, “it could negatively impact our ability to operate and would force us to move or not operate in the state.”
It’s an age-old tactic used by sports teams and it’s age-old because it so often works. Build us a new arena or we’ll go to a place where they’ll happily build one for us. Give us tax breaks and concessions or we’ll have to pick up our ball and go somewhere else. And in this case, grant us an exemption from laws governing the basic human right to minimum wage or we’ll take our teenagers and have them entertain hockey fans somewhere else.
Oh really? Considering the Everett Silvertips (4,898 average fans per game), Spokane Chiefs (5,570), Seattle Thunderbirds (4,353) and Tri-City Americans (3,976) are attracting decent home crowds, it's safe to assume the revenue they're drawing from their regular season gate alone is robust. Probably multi-millions.
So are we to believe that the teams in Washington State would turn their backs on those kinds of crowds and that kind of income if they were forced to pay their teenagers minimum wage? If so, then it should call their bluff and dare them to leave. Go ahead, move your teams to small-town Canada where there aren’t even rinks big enough to hold that many people.
The issue of compensation for major junior hockey players and the looming threat of a players’ union has been a matter of public discussion for the past couple of years. And it seems that the primary opposition to increasing the compensation to a more reasonable wage is that it would drive these poor junior hockey operators out of business.
Well, if that’s the case, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in the major junior hockey business in the first place. And if paying these kids what they deserve means that places such as Val d’Or or Belleville or Swift Current can’t continue to operate, then perhaps it’s time for them to come to that realization. Maybe the economics of junior hockey have outgrown some of these places.
And if that were to happen, would that be such a bad thing? Well, you could argue that having fewer major junior teams will give players fewer opportunities to play the highest level of hockey and affect their chances of going on to the pro ranks. But really? The Canadian Hockey League currently has 60 teams in the Quebec, Ontario and Western Leagues, which encompass about 1,200 players based on a 20-man roster. How many of those players will go on to play professionally and make a living from the game? Probably a couple hundred at the most.
But most of all, it’s simply ludicrous to use a flawed business model as justification for paying unfairly low wages. Full stop. And it’s particularly ludicrous when the London Knights, Calgary Hitmen and Quebec Remparts – a team that recently sold for about $25 million – doesn’t have to share its revenues with its smaller competitors because there’s not meaningful revenue sharing in the CHL.
Proponents will argue that players get free room and board, equipment and lucrative education packages in addition to their meager weekly stipends. And all of that is true, even if the education packages come with a number of caveats. But the players are still being shortchanged, particularly those who don’t go the education route after junior hockey.
The CHL has long contended that of its 60 teams, one-third turn a profit, one-third struggle to break even and one-third lose money. For every big-market team run by former NHLers that makes millions of dollars, there’s a community-owned Mom and Pop outfit that somehow scratches and claws its way through each season. Those opposed to having a union will convince you that the bottom third won’t have a chance for survival if the rules change.
Too bad. Having a junior hockey team is not a right. It’s a privilege and if you can’t pay for that privilege, you don’t deserve to have it. Was anybody concerned about the good people of Plymouth when their team announced it is moving to Flint next season? Did junior hockey operators lose any sleep when the OHL was replaced by the Central League (and now the ECHL) in Brampton?
No, because junior hockey is a business. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But businesses generally have to pay their employees a fair wage. And if they can’t afford to do that, they generally have to close. Or in the case of the teams in Washington State, maybe move somewhere else.