It's unfortunate, but efforts to get a players' association started for the three major junior circuits always seem to get off on the wrong foot. As reported by the Toronto Star on Monday, Hockey Canada nemesis Glenn Gumbley is back on the scene, this time teaming up with Unifor (which also represents Star reporters), a major private sector union.
Based on the comments and situations described in the article, neither Gumbley nor Unifor should be anywhere near a potential CHL union drive, but that doesn't mean I dismiss the idea. What the concept does need, however, is support from the constituents themselves. So I hit the ol' modern rolodex and asked major junior players from across the country what they thought. The respondents represented all three circuits: Ontario League, Western League and Quebec League. Some were high NHL draft picks, some haven't been drafted yet, while others signed pro deals as free agents.
And there was one common thread when I asked what the players would want from a union: More money.
Compensation has long been an issue for junior players, with very small stipends being the norm for decades, even as the cost of living dramatically went up. Recently, the OHL changed its benefits package to allow up to $470 worth of expenses per month, which could cover gas money, entertainment and cell phone bills. But one player told me that the amount of gas it takes to drive to school and the rink every day eats up most of that. Then, he has to pay $300 for car insurance every month, plus any repairs to the vehicle. He ends up borrowing money from his parents, who already spent years paying AAA hockey fees so he could just get to major junior.
Another player from a different league noted that it would be nice if the teens didn't have to pay for their Subway sandwiches in change (a line I found delightful, since Subway is a major CHL sponsor).
But that same player didn't actually believe a union would be helpful – he simply wanted the compensation bumped up league-wide. Players have enough stress on their plates without being burdened with something else to keep their minds on, he noted, especially since the vast majority will never play in the NHL: major junior should be a comfortable time for them.
Other players had no complaints about the CHL at all; they were fine with the status quo.
For me, I see the whole issue as a complex one. The ownership structures in the CHL are incredibly varied, with some teams run by billionaires (WHL Portland) or NHL teams (WHL Edmonton), while others are run by the communities themselves (OHL Kitchener). Across-the-board raises in benefits for players would be tough without some sort of revenue sharing pool and I'm not sure if the bigger teams would go for that.
Of course, the easy answer to that quagmire is "Too bad."
And that can be taken two ways: For the bigger teams, they must acknowledge that having a vibrant league with approximately 20 franchises in a limited geographic area means the haves must help out the have nots. For the smaller teams, they have to realize that the CHL has grown to a point of near-professionalism and they have to ante up if they want to stay in the game. Either way, this isn't something to be dumped on the kids that put the fans in the seats in the first place.
Logistically, I'm wrestling with the concept of a CHL union. The "members" would only be part of the group for a few years, so continuity would be difficult. Plus, when would these kids have time to think about the union? They're already playing three games a week and the majority are in school. Plus there's the travel to and from road games – think about what the Val-d'Or Foreurs or Prince George Cougars have to go through for every away game.
That issue of travel, in fact, was brought up by a player, who believes overnight trips and the food provided on said trips should be regulated to ensure peak performance from the teens.
Is it time for players to get minimum wage for hours served at the rink and on the road? Should teens be able to charge mileage instead of relying on benefit packages that they claim barely cover gas?
It's not an issue that is going away and hopefully the day soon comes where a fair and equitable deal can be worked out between the players and the CHL. It doesn't have to be a union, but the call to action is being heard nonetheless.
Note: None of the players in the photo above were among the anonymous players consulted for this story - it is simply an illustration of CHL hockey.