The class-action lawsuit brought forward by former OHL player Sam Berg states that major junior hockey players are in fact employees and should be compensated as such. This lawsuit has created a major buzz in the hockey community, prompting strong arguments from either side of the debate. The lawsuit itself has even split Sam Berg’s family (As reported by TSN Senior Correspondent, Rick Westhead)—pitting grandfather against grandson.
It’s a difficult situation mostly due to the amount of information that hasn’t been disclosed. Without knowing all of the facts, why shouldn’t we believe that major junior hockey isn’t an amateur level? Why shouldn’t we believe that the players are spoiled “student-athletes” looking for a handout? Without supporting statistics being made public about how much these teams are making off the backs of players, if anything, there just isn’t enough to take up an axe and torch over.
Popular opinion suggests that the amount a team compensates players to provide them with room and board, equipment and sticks, education packages and stipends would be a vastly larger sum than what these players would receive if they were considered employees and paid a minimum wage. To paraphrase a common response I’ve heard on this topic:
“I’m sick of this debate. If these spoiled brats want to get paid minimum wage, do it. Then make them pay their own room and board, equipment, sticks, and expenses. And take away their school packages, too! Then you’ll see them crawling back with their tail between their legs.”
So how much do teams shell out each season for these kids? Below is a breakdown of the numbers of what teams provide in way of compensation/perks and what they could receive if it is deemed that they are employees and should receive a minimum wage:
* These numbers are based on my personal experiences as a player, coach and hockey administrator as well as insight from other hockey professionals. I estimated on the high side of all costs.
Costs Teams Incur on Accommodation/Perks for a Player/Season:
Room and Board:
Billets receive anywhere from $350-400 average per player, per month, from major junior organizations. (Based on my experience as a billet coordinator during my tenure as a coach in the OJHL, where I dealt with several former OHL billet families)
Room & board cost for the season: $2,800 – $3,200
League negotiates a sponsorship deal with a company (e.g. Bauer, Warrior, Reebok) and receives discounted pricing. Team pays a standard amount for an equipment package per year (Average: $90,000 – $120,000 per team – This is strictly an estimate).
Equipment/apparel/stick costs for the season: $4,000 (ballpark)
One Year of Post-Secondary Tuition:
Last year (2015-16), average tuition was $5,750.
University tuition costs per year: $5,750
* Keep in mind that less than half will access this package and less than 20% will graduate from a post-secondary institution. The school packages do not cover room and board, books and/or any other related costs.
Until very recently, players were allotted as low as $50 per week. New CHL mandates state players can claim up to $470/month (Valid receipts must be provided)
* Keep in mind, players don’t necessarily claim the $470 per month
Valid cost reimbursements for the season: Up to $3,290
Off-Season Training Reimbursement:
Players can be reimbursed for up to $1,000 for off-season training services accessed.
Annual off-season training: Up to $1,000
Overall Accommodation/Perks per Player/Season: Up to $17,240
* This includes tuition allotment which may or may not be accessed
Overall Accommodation/Perks (23-man roster): Up to $396,520 per season
Estimated Annual Compensation if Players Were Paid Minimum Wage:
Below is an estimation of the amount of billable hours a player could claim while playing in the CHL. These numbers are simply an averaged-estimate. I based these estimates on my experience as a hockey player, discussions with former major junior players, and the Ontario Hockey League and its geographical structure. These numbers would be different for the QMJHL and WHL due to longer distances between teams.
Estimated CHL Player Annual Billable Hours:
Home Game Day:
Pre-Game Skate/Meetings: 2 hours
Video Session: 0.5 hours
The Game (Prep, Recovery, Meetings, etc.): 5 hours
Overall: 7.5 hours
Away Game Day:
Greatly depends on travel schedule. Average below, assuming it is not an overnight trip:
Average bus ride to destination per game: 3 hours
The Game (Prep, Recovery, Meetings, etc.): 5 hours
Average bus ride from destination per game: 3 hours
Overall: 11 hours
Practice (Prep & Recovery): 1.5 hours
Video Sessions/Meetings: 0.5 hour
Workout Session/Rehab: 1.5 hours
Overall: 3.5 hours
Off-Season On/Off Ice Training 2 hours/day
Overall: 2 hours
Per Season Averages (not including playoffs or pre-season):
Off-Season Total Days: 169
Off-Season Daily Billable Hrs 169 x 2 hours (338)
In-Season Total Days: 196
Total Home Game Days: 34 x 7.5 hours (255)
Total Away Game Days: 34 x 11 hours (374)
Total Off-Days: 128 x 3.5 hours (448)
Total Billable Hours: 1415 x $ 11.25 (Minimum Wage)
Estimated CHL Player Salary per season: $15,919
Overall Salary Costs per Team Based on 23-Man Roster: $ 366,137/yr
After taking a look at these numbers, it is clear that the costs a team invests in its players in the form of accommodation and perks is relatively close to what players would be entitled to in a minimum wage structure, based on estimated billable hours. The key to these numbers is that it would be consistent if it was guaranteed that the players received their school packages without any restrictions. Then it would actually be a fair system for compensation.
That being said, I do not support the idea that players should be paid a salary. The key reason for this has to do with mental health, the culture of hockey, the immense pressure these kids are under while living away from home, and the developmental stages of these boys. As a junior player living away from home, I received a stipend and spent every red cent of it on booze and parties. I was an honour student, never broke the law and was considered an upstanding young citizen. The fact is, partying is a big part of the culture of hockey and is a big part of being a kid between the ages of 16 and 20. Paying junior kids just feeds into bad habits.
While I don’t think players should be paid a salary, there is no doubt that CHL players experience the same harsh realities and deal with the same pressures as professional athletes. This is what makes proper mental health support and access to support services crucial. These aren’t 30-year-old men. They’re developing teenagers. Their bodies and brains are still developing and even though they look like men, they are in a very vulnerable time in their life.
What’s the Solution?
From the onset of the rumblings about player unions and class-action lawsuits, my stance has been that the CHL needs to do more to support the players and remove restrictions on school packages. The better option would be to remove all restrictions from the scholarship packages, making them 100% accessible. In addition to removing the restrictions, increased support for players in the way of mental health and mentorship/career planning (Which the CHL is making strides in implementing) would greatly improve the treatment of CHL players on the whole. With those elements in place, it would be hard to knock the CHL system for the overall development of “student-athletes”.