The Government of Ontario is apparently very eager, “(to) encourage even more youth, children, families and athletes to get active and return to play safely.” (Their words, not mine.) Which is why it gave the Ontario League $2.35 million this week to help support the league’s scholarship program.
Exactly how propping up a for-profit league to the tune of more than $2 million in taxpayer money during a pandemic-fuelled economic downturn encourages people to get active and return to play safely truly boggles the mind. But that was part of the government’s verbiage when it made the announcement, which was part of a $15.3 million pledge from Ontario’s Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, “to support grassroots activities, sport and recreation organizations and high-performance athletes.”
The pledge of taxpayer money amounts to about $138,000 for each of the league’s Ontario-based 17 teams, which will go toward paying scholarships to players who have not signed a pro contract to attend Canadian universities after their OHL careers end. Although the education packages differ depending on what is negotiated, the minimum scholarship benefit is tuition, books and compulsory fees for each season played in the OHL toward an undergraduate degree, provided the player does not sign a contract to play professional hockey. According to USports, last season, there were 334 former OHL players attending Canadian universities, with a total contribution from the league of over $3 million. About 200 of those former players played university hockey last season.
So if you’re an Ontario taxpayer, perhaps one who has your own children struggling to make ends meet in university, you are now armed with the knowledge that your provincial government found an extra $2.35 million to help teams such as the London Knights pay their players’ scholarship commitment for a season. That might sit just fine with some people, it might outrage others. But one thing is certain, this provincial government and the others in Canada are more than willing to help junior hockey operators in this country with almost whatever they need. (It should also be noted that while OHL teams to this point haven’t brought in any revenues, it is also not paying its players, nor is it saddled with the cost of room and board and travel expenses.)
Earlier this year, the Quebec government gave the Quebec League $20 million in pandemic relief, on the proviso that it clamps down more on fighting. But the biggest hand junior teams have received from all provincial governments has come in the past couple of years in the form of classifying their players as amateur student-athletes, which gives them an exemption from labor laws. This allows junior hockey owners in this country to avoid having to pay their players minimum wage and instead give them about $50-a-week stipend, which saves them millions of dollars.
When the OHL lobbied the provincial government, it argued that if it were forced to pay its players minimum wage – which is currently $13.40 for students and $14.25 for non-students – it would financially cripple a good number of teams in the league and deprive fans the entertainment experience and players hockey development opportunities. (And junior leagues do pay for room and board, equipment and expenses.) It would be interesting to see what the government’s reaction would be if McDonald’s or Home Depot lobbied it to have teenagers work for free in return for education funding.
You might be wondering right around now how a government can justify using taxpayer dollars to fund a for-profit business under the guise of grassroots programs and encouraging people to be active. I sure do. That was why I reached out to the press secretary for Lisa McLeod, who is Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. I had several questions about the grant, including whether the government was receiving any guarantees from the OHL that the money will be spent on scholarships and not put into general revenues. I have yet to hear back. I also registered for Premier Doug Ford’s media availability on Thursday with the intention of asking him about it, but was not selected to ask a question.
Two texts and a call to OHL commissioner David Branch also went unanswered. What I would really like to know at this point is if the OHL cannot play this season, whether or not players currently under contract will be credited with a season played toward their scholarships.
So there’s a fair bit of mystery here. But one thing that is out in the open is that the taxpayers of Ontario are propping up a for-profit business in what is being referred to as an effort to get people active. Going out on a limb here, but I’m not sure helping a for-profit enterprise pay for an elite athlete’s tuition and books is going to get many people off the couch.