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It’s time to separate fact from fiction when it comes to how junior hockey players are treated

A recent attempt to have junior hockey players classified as amateurs in Oregon led lawmakers to hear harrowing tales from former players, and it may have been one more step towards lifting the culture of secrecy that surrounds major junior.

There’s a very good chance the horror stories that lawmakers in Oregon heard last week from former major junior hockey players is not typical of the experience of most young men who suit up for the 60 teams in the Canadian Hockey League. If they were, most of those teams would have been out of business years ago.

But all it takes is a couple of powerful, impactful and shocking stories to sway people. Such was the case last week when the Portland Winterhawks and the Western League found themselves mired in a public relations disaster that stemmed from their move to have the state of Oregon pass a law that would officially render Winterhawk players as amateurs, thus exempting them from receiving minimum wage, workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment insurance. The testimonies of two former players and the mother of another left the lawyer for the Winterhawks red-faced and searching for the right words. It was not a shining moment for the league or junior hockey.

But so much of this story over the past year or so has not looked good for those who operate major junior hockey teams. The WHL and Winterhawks thought they would be able to breeze legislation through the way they had in Washington, Michigan and several provinces that would presumably buttress them against a class action lawsuit that is demanding minimum wage and back pay for junior hockey players. Until they got to Oregon, junior hockey had found lawmakers who were only too happy to carry their water and keep them in business. British Columbia exempted the WHL from its Employment Standards Act two years ago with little consultation and a fair bit of support from owners of WHL teams, three of whom donated to the ruling Liberal party in B.C. in recent years.

“How is it that the B.C. government thought it was OK to do this when they were more than aware that there are court cases going on elsewhere in the country on this very specific question?” then NDP Labor Critic Shane Simpson asked at the time. “And I have seen nothing that suggests that they had a serious analysis of the financial situation of these teams and what could be a consequence if they had to start paying kids $10.85 an hour.”

(It will be interesting to see whether the B.C. government revisits this issue, given the fact that Simpson’s NDP is now the ruling party in the province.)

The problem the Winterhawks, the WHL and junior hockey in general had in Oregon is that it attempted its gambit in a state where organized labor has real power and impact. And it took one look at this bill and the rights it would restrict and drew a line in the sand. It mobilized a number of powerful unions, created a website that encouraged people to convince their senators to vote against the bill and showed up at a hearing armed with horror stories from players Tyler Maxwell and James McEwan, as well as the mother of former WHLer Garrett Taylor. None of those players ever even played for the Winterhawks, but they painted a picture of exploitation that left the senators in Oregon very nervous about the law they were considering passing. The law ultimately was referred to the Rules Committee, where it died when the legislature ended its session last weekend.

These were people who knew little about hockey and even less about the machinations of the WHL and major junior hockey as a whole. You could tell by the questions they asked in the hearing and the clarification they needed on a number of issues. They were prime to be swayed and they were swayed in a huge way by Maxwell, who said he played seven games on a cracked kneecap before receiving medical attention; McEwan, who said he had been in 75 fights in his major junior career and now battles depression, mood swings and thoughts of suicide; and Kim Taylor, who said her son was dropped from his team just before a team bus trip and later had panic attacks and had to be institutionalized for obsessive compulsive disorder.

Again, these stories are not typical of the junior hockey experience. But clearly they do transpire from time to time. The success stories absolutely outweigh the negative ones, there is no doubt about that. But what we don’t know right now is how often these kinds of negative experiences happen because players have been so reticent about coming forward. What everyone needs to know is how prevalent these kinds of incidents are in junior hockey and we’re only going to know if players continue to come forward. It took a long, long time for the #MeToo movement to gain traction and it will take time for others who have been so beholden to the game for so long to speak up. There’s a good chance that a minuscule number of players have been treated unfairly. But maybe it’s 10 percent, maybe it’s 20. We don’t know because the culture of secrecy has surrounded this issue for so long.

And that’s why it’s important that people such as Tyler Maxwell and James McEwan and Kim Taylor are heard. It’s pretty clear that those who run major junior hockey refuse to put themselves on the right side of history and comply by paying their players a fair wage. They are going to fight this to the end. But that fight will have costs to them. It has already forced many of them to open their books far wider than they ever wanted to, and it should bring players out of the woodwork, both who have had positive and negative experiences, so we get a true reflection of what the landscape is in major junior hockey.

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