The Time is Right for a Major Junior Hockey Players’ Association

Two years ago when the notion of unionizing major junior hockey in North America was introduced, the majority of the public shook their heads and laughed. Public perception was that these are amateur hockey players who get everything handed to them on a silver platter. Why would these kids need a union?

The initial launch of the CHLPA, although mired in controversy and ultimately unsuccessful, did one particular thing. It started the conversation about whether or not players are actually employees and whether or not they are being exploited. If you ask Canadian Hockey League (CHL) President, David Branch, major junior players are “Student-Athletes” (hahaha, more on that one later) who are amateur athletes that receive stipends and educational support. Given that major junior athletes are amateur players, there is no legal requirement or precedence for them to be unionized.

The NCAA (major junior’s major competition for prime grade beef) stipulates major junior as an organization employing professional athletes according to legislated Bylaw 12.2.3.2.4 and thus, deems any player who signs a major junior standard contract and competes in major junior competition as in violation of amateurism. This is where the war over 16-year-old kids begins between the CHL and the NCAA and why the birth of “School Boy” packages in the CHL was needed to maintain an edge in recruitment battles.

So, if we make the assumption that major junior hockey players do qualify as employees under North American labour laws, is a players association justifiable? In order to answer this question, I will break down some of the most common arguments against this concept:

 

1)      A player’s association will cripple smaller market teams in the CHL.

This argument is based on the notion that only certain CHL teams actually generate profits and that most teams barely scratch by. Below are some general revenue streams for the CHL and its teams:

  • Ticket Sales
  • Food Concessions
  • Merchandise
  • TV Revenue (On Feb. 18, 2014, the CHL and Sportsnet Announced 12-Year Multiplatform Rights Extension)
  • CHL Video Game Rights (On May 21, 2010, The CHL and Electronic Arts announced a partnership that saw the junior league included in the video game maker’s popular NHL series)
  • Corporate Sponsorship
  • Major Event Revenue (Events such as the World Junior Championships, the Mastercard Memorial Cup, CHL Top Prospect Game, Canada-Russia Super Series, Outdoor Games generate multi-millions in revenue for the CHL)
  • NHL kickbacks for CHL teams who have players drafted by NHL teams and/or sign NHL contracts

The problem with examining CHL revenues is that everything is kept pretty close to the vest. There simply isn’t enough transparency to know for sure how much money teams actually make. David Branch claims that only a handful of teams are profitable, but this is extremely hard to fathom by looking at the lucrative potential of running a business that doesn’t pay the majority of its employees.

To put things into perspective, the average attendance in the OHL during the 2013-14 season was 4,041 per game. At an average of $20 per ticket, based on 34 home games, it equates to average annual ticket revenue of $2,747,880 per team (Not including revenues from pre-season and playoff games).

The ECHL (A minor pro league that employs unionized, paid employees) matches up accordingly in average attendance and ticket revenues. ECHL average attendance for the 2013-14 was 4,282, with an average ticket price around $20. Based on 36 regular season home games, this puts annual ticket revenues at a comparable $3,083,040 (Not including revenues from pre-season and playoff games).

The glaring differences between the CHL and ECHL, aside from age, are as follows:

  • Salary: the ECHL has a $12,400 weekly salary cap, amounting to $347,200 in annual salary costs per team and an average annual player salary of $17,360. (To draw some comparison, On average, undergraduate students paid $5,772 in tuition fees in 2013/2014 in Canada, amounting to what teams would compensate players in the form of a scholarship package per year of service. Also, keep in mind that the majority of major junior players don’t end up using this money due to restrictions and other factors.)
  • Housing Costs: (This is essentially a wash as both ECHL and CHL teams cover housing costs)
  • Travel: ECHL road trips are notoriously long, with some teams like the Alaska Aces having to fly to all destinations
  • Limited Revenue Streams: Absence of lucrative revenue streams like major multi-million-dollar events, multi-platform TV deals for the ECHL

It would seem pretty clear that while comparing the ECHL and the CHL, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to suspect that CHL teams should be crying poor, at least not at a quick glance.

What is the benefit of a players’ association?

Firstly, I like the word “players’ association” instead of “union” because I believe people are scared of the word, “union.”  Essentially, a players’ association will help to ensure transparency and proper dispersal of revenues to ensure players are receiving adequate benefits packages including: medical, mental health support, education packages and expense reimbursements. The PA will provide structure and continuity across the CHL.

 

2)      The CHL already provides comprehensive benefits above and beyond what is fair. They get free post-secondary schooling for Pete’s Sake!

While the CHL has included scholarship money in their agreements with players, the promise of free schooling comes with some fine print. Access to scholarship money is accompanied by the following restrictions:

  • Players have an 18-month window that opens after their 20th birthday to register for post-secondary courses. If they fail to do so, their scholarship money will be revoked. Even though many people are starting post-secondary programs later in life, CHL President, David Branch, stated that this rule is in place to discourage players from delaying commencing their post-secondary education, which includes players who spend a few years trying to reach their NHL dreams through the minor leagues (Fact: Most players need 3 – 4 seasons in the minor leagues to cut their teeth in leagues like the AHL and ECHL in order to reach the NHL).
  • If you sign an NHL contract, your scholarship money will be revoked. (Fact: Many players sign NHL contracts and never end up playing in the NHL or seeing NHL money. These are short-term, two or three-way contracts that pay them standard AHL or ECHL money.  This is what happens to the majority of players drafted by NHL teams and all of these players must find new careers once their playing days end).
  • For every season played at the minor pro level (AHL, ECHL, CHL, SPHL, Europe), you will lose a year of scholarship money. CHL President David Branch mentioned in an interview on CBC’s The Current, that minor pro players are “well-compensated” and don’t require the assistance of scholarship money. My guess is Mr. Branch hasn’t ridden the buses in the minor leagues while chasing the very dream that is his company’s major selling point, for 500 bucks a week.

As far as the benefits of full medical coverage, something can be learned from what WHLer Tim Bozon and his family experienced this past season (full article courtesy of CBC).

What is the benefit of a players’ association?

The P.A. will ensure that education packages are consistent in their makeup. Access and restrictions will be clearly defined and agreed upon.

 

3)      The players need to quit whining and toughen up. They are pampered enough already as it is.

Most people that make this argument seem to forget that these players are as young as 16-years-old, living away from home, away from their support system and sometimes living in a completely different country. These are not men. They are teenagers who happen to be involved in a pro-style setting where the stakes are high and money is the major driving force.

It is the “Old Boys” mentality of never showing weakness that has created a toxic culture in hockey. A PA would help to remove this stigma and provide players with the support they need to handle the rigors and stresses of what is essentially a pro hockey landscape. We need not look any further than the Terry Trafford tragedy of this past season to understand that support for mental health awareness and proper protocols are desperately needed to handle difficult transitions for young players.

David Branch has addressed these issues stating that protocols are in place to help players deal with mental health issues. Each team has the support of a “liaison” – for several teams this is a police officer or principal – to help kids work through issues. For one, a police officer isn’t a mental health professional, and two, when I played junior hockey, we had a cop who was our “liaison” and his specialization was getting us out of speeding tickets and avoiding the drunk tank at 3 a.m.

What is the benefit of a players’ association?

Once again, a P.A. will be able to negotiate and establish proper protocols and professional support for players in regards to mental health.

 

4)      How will players pay union dues? This is just a big cash grab.

Usually, union dues are taken out of an employee’s paycheque at a percentage of their wage. For example, when I played in the ECHL, I made $550 a week and paid roughly $25 per week for union dues. It worked out to about $700 for the season, which to me was a major bargain, considering the fact that I required two major surgeries that season on my knee and face (which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses) and reaped the benefits of having a collective voice to help negotiate better living conditions for players, including room and board and accommodations on the road on top of scheduling.

Since players already receive stipend compensation, worst case scenario would be that stipends increase from an average of $50 a week to $75 or $100 a week to ensure players can cover their dues. Or, if it comes to the point where players are paid minimal salaries, the dues would simply be taken out as a percentage of their wages. There are several ways to go about covering these costs. To say it can’t be done is simply lazy thinking—which is ironically what people who are against unions deem unionized employees to be.

 

5)      Junior hockey players are amateurs and should not be paid.

On principal, I agree with this. I think is potentially dangerous to give hockey players at young, impressionable and vulnerable ages wads of cash. Often, with the lifestyle these kids are exposed to, these funds will be spent on alcohol and parties. A smarter idea might be to setup an expense reimbursement plan where players can submit receipts to have expenses such as: fuel, clothing, recreation (movies, meals, books, etc.), and other reasonable expenses covered, up to a maximum monthly amount. This way teams can control the way in which compensation is being spent, promoting accountability.

Another option is for additional compensation, beyond weekly stipends for minimal expenses, to be distributed into trusts which can be accessed at a later date. Many times, this is what agents of professional athletes will do with large portions of signing bonuses for young athletes.

What is the benefit of a players’ association?

A P.A. would help to ensure that benefits and compensation are being directly tied to rising revenue streams. As teams make greater profits off the backs of the players, the players will experience greater support and healthier development.

 

How are CHL players being exploited?

1)      Education:

David Branch has been quoted as saying that CHL players are “Student-Athletes”. Branch is saying that the CHL puts a major emphasis on academics and schooling. The fact is academics in leagues like the OHL are a long, long way down the list of priorities for players, somewhere just below making sure that you packed enough socks for a road trip.

In CHL leagues, where players can play upwards of 100 games over the course of a season, education takes a backseat to hockey. Many players miss weeks upon weeks of class time as they traipse around the countryside on vast road trips. Often practice times are scheduled during school hours, with players often having to take “independent study” classes or “Co-ops” (I once had a teacher give one of the players I coached course credit for doing laundry after practices at the rink).

During my 4 seasons coaching Tier II junior “A” hockey in Ontario, I coached over 30 former major junior players. The majority of these kids, who were 19 or 20 years-old, were on average 1 to 2 years behind in their academics due to their intense major junior hockey schedules. With such a poor emphasis on education, it is no wonder that less than 20% of major junior players go on to achieve post-secondary degrees.

 

2)      Professional Mental Health Support:

The hockey culture is stressful for anyone, and even more so for junior hockey players where the stakes are high and minds and bodies are still developing. The bill of goods that is sold to every 16-year-old prospect’s family is the dream of someday playing in the NHL. Teams exploit this dream in every way possible.

The game of hockey is surrounded with negative statistics and long-shot odds, from scoring percentages, to turnover rates, to the fact that only one team can win each year, to the minuscule odds of making it to the NHL. What accompany these negative statistics are strong feelings of self-doubt, hopelessness, and depression. It’s no surprise that there are higher alcohol and drug abuse statistics related to current and former hockey players from junior to the NHL.

It’s a vicious cycle of suffering in silence due to stigma, to coping through popular forms of self-abuse. I experienced it as a player over and over again and on many occasions contemplated suicide. There isn’t enough support in place to help players deal with difficult realities and transitions that the overwhelming majority of players must face once their hockey careers end at the major junior level.

 

Summary:

Whether people like it or not, a player’s association in the CHL is coming. It might not be this time around, or even the next, but the discussion is only building momentum and eventually the door is going to get kicked in. We should also keep in mind that the dark cloud that is concussions in hockey is picking up speed at an alarming rate as more research is being funded and more evidence and data about long-term effects of head injuries are emerging. The glaring truth is that CHL players are being exploited on several levels. When there is a situation of exploitation, a collective stance is needed to ensure governance and accountability prevails. It’s not about greed and compensation, but rather about what is fair and ethical.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

11 thoughts on “The Time is Right for a Major Junior Hockey Players’ Association

  1. Hi Jamie, Well thought article here. Be ready for the non-union to come down on you!:) I like how you have explained everything in detail since you have gone through it you should know right? My question is to you though, What has been so different since you have played then what is happening now?

    • Hi Coach! I fully expect to get trashed on this subject. But hey! Bring it on!

      The biggest difference since when I played is the treatment of injuries, fighting in hockey, regulations against hazing and slowly, awareness about substance abuse.

      Education still isn’t being made enough of a priority and mental health, although being recognized as an issue, isn’t being taken seriously enough. Stigma is still a major issue in the hockey culture. More support is needed to help bring down the walls.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Very informative and definitely understand your side.
        Just curious, do you happen to know what the CHL tv deal with Sportsnet is worth?

  2. You may want to do some research before you write such an article. The CHL didn’t receive a penny for video game rights, and the OHL is already reimbursing player expenses up to $470 per month (overage players may have a higher maximum).

    • Using a 16-year-old’s name in a video game without compensation to at least the league would be grounds for a major lawsuit. That makes zero sense.

      There is alot of talk about “reimbursing” expenses and there are good stories and bad stories when hearing from players. The fact is, these are only guidelines at this point. Not every team follows these rules, just like there is alot of variation in school packages (ie. some kids get books paid for, some don’t. Some kids get extra perks, such as housing and meal plans paid for, while some don’t).

      The point is, there isn’t consistency and there are too many loopholes.

    • NWeeler. Just to be clear. The CHL didn’t receive a penny for video game rights, however, these video games contribute to the leagues marketing strategy. They help sell tickets, merchandise & help promote the league bringing millions of dollars more each year to the CHL while the actual players images that are being used receive a free hockey stick or two.

      As for the $470 reimbursement plan the league has recently implemented just means the players have to reach into their own already empty pockets and wait for the team to reimburse them.

      How many 16 year olds do you know are carrying $4 – $5 hundred dollars on them and can wait to be reimbursed?

      This new reimbursement plan is the leagues strategy to avoid paying players a stipend which deems them to be employees. Instead the league came up with a system which will allow them to right-off expenses and will also allow the league to continue to exploit young teenage hockey players while the owners line their own pockets with millions upon millions of dollars.

      All of this garbage will come to an end on my watch.

      Rome wasn’t built in a day.

      Glenn Gumbley

  3. You make very good points with respect to mental health support – the culture at all levels of sport (not just hockey) needs to change so that athletes are encouraged and feel free to contact a mental health professional.

    Does it concern you that starting with the CHLPA and now with UNIFOR that no player has approached a union asking for their help? That the push behind this initiative is the union (and who stand to gain the most) and not the players? Does that seem a little sleazy to you? It does to me.

    Are there CHL teams that lose money? Absolutely. Are there CHL teams that make money? Absolutely. But not to the level some would believe or have you believe. Kitchener is one of the more financially successful teams in the OHL, and yet they don’t make anywhere near millions after expenses.

    • You have some good points. And, I’m not sure UNIFOR is the right group to take this initiative on. There is too much controversy connected to their push already. A “Player’s Association”, and I prefer that to that to “Union”, is going to be instituted at some point. There isn’t enough consistency and transparency across the CHL when it comes to support for players. And players are being exploited on many levels.

      Talking to your point about players supporting this, there haven’t been reports of players approaching UNIFOR because there isn’t enough information out there right now on what their plans are moving forward. Also, do you think players feel safe approaching a union at this point? If I’m a player, I’m not going to take the chance of being blackballed (And believe me, it happens). I have spoken with hundreds of former and current CHLers and they have all enthuisiastically supported the concept of a PA.

      Also, saying that some CHL teams lose money and this is a good reason not to allow a player’s association is what everyone says when there is a push for representation. There are alot of options to ensuring the survival of smaller market teams (profit sharing, etc.) That is no excuse to shoot down a Player’s Association. If most teams are losing money, then the CHL should open the books and provide proof and make all of us “whiners” go back into our holes. Because, without transparency, the quick glance numbers don’t add up to support this claim.

      • Great article. Based on my experience, with very few exceptions every player/team I met with were eager to meet me in strict confidence to sign union cards. They’re not going to risk taking the initiative out of fear of reprisal but when approached they’re all for it. The younger players look up to the older guys on the teams so naturally they have the full experience of 4-5 years of being in the league.

        These players need their rights protected and should be compensated accordingly for their dedication and restrictions on education is unacceptable.

        I can go on for days about this but I’ll leave it at that.

        Regards,

        Glenn Gumbley

        • Thanks for weighing in Glenn! It’s nice to hear from an insider’s point of view. It really is about perception control. And, from a player’s perspective, it’s terrifying to think about being the first one to speak out. Unfortunately, intimidation continues to be a strong hinderance.

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