The labor status of major junior hockey players has been a flashpoint issue for years now and the Quebec League seems to be winning the political battle on their turf. As reported by Le Journal de Quebec, provincial labor minister Dominique Vien will move to clarify that “student-players” attending school would not be subject to the same labor standards as other working students – and that includes their rights to minimum wage pay.
The QMJHL has already squared away some of its labor issues with the province of Nova Scotia, where the Halifax Mooseheads and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles play. And while the work with the Quebec government isn’t brand new, it became public because of a different law that requires those lobbying the government to register – something QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau did for this issue. Another exception sought by the hockey circuit involves travel. Under the Quebec Labour Standards Act, workers must be compensated for overtime while travelling and that would be untenable, the league believes. Some teams travel for more than 12 hours to get to games and if players were compensated, it would be unevenly, since some teams (Val-d’Or and Rouyn-Noranda, for example) have much greater distances to log during the season.
Needless to say, none of this will please major junior’s detractors. The CHL is currently involved in a lawsuit regarding labor practices and this will no doubt anger them further.
According to QMJHL spokesman Photi Sotiropolous, Vien’s governmental work will help a league where many franchises lose money or break even. “It’s clarifying the law,” Sotiropolous told me. “When you are playing amateur sports, you are not an employee.”
That status is at the heart of the CHL lawsuit, where the plaintiffs believe players do deserve more compensation for their work on the ice. Sotiropolous maintains that players are provided with everything they need once they are drafted into the ‘Q,’ with equipment, training, billet housing and education taken care of. There is also a weekly “incentive bursary” of $60 for players 16 to 19 and $150 for 20-year-olds who are in school.
Sotiropolous believes that switching up all those expenses and bursaries for minimum wage would take the incentive off education for players. “If we take the lawsuit at face value,” he said, “that dynamic changes dramatically.”
The million dollar question, of course, is “why can’t teams pay players and still cover some expenses?” And that’s a tough one to nail down across the CHL. The OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, for example, are community-owned and their financial records for 2014-15 revealed a profit of $96,000. However, that doesn’t include the debt being paid down on a recently purchased scoreboard. And keep in mind; Kitchener is a popular team. There is a lot of stratification in the CHL and the QMJHL is no different. While Quebec, Halifax and Moncton may be big markets capable of strong economic returns, smaller teams such as Acadie-Bathurst or Val-d’Or live and die by attendance and playoff runs. Lately, the news hasn’t been good. Attendance has been sagging for many teams and were it not for the Remparts – who broke records in their new building, the Videotron Centre – last year would have been even worse.
Which, if you’re involved in the lawsuit against the CHL, isn’t your problem. The issue of what kind of labor status junior hockey players deserve is a divisive one and if teams aren’t making money, is that the responsibility of the players to fix, or the owners and leagues?
On the other hand, no one forces kids to play major junior. You can get to the NHL by playing NCAA hockey and many have done so. The QMJHL acknowledges that only a small percentage of its players go on to the NHL and that’s why the emphasis on education is there. Kids know (or should know) what they’re getting into when they sign up to play in the CHL and there must be responsibility on both sides for the player’s future.
The debate is far from over, but the news out of Quebec certainly makes for interesting fodder in the meantime.