When news broke on Monday that a second attempt was being made to unionize players in the Canadian Hockey League it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Despite the first failed endeavour back in the summer of 2012, it was only a matter of time before someone tried again.
There is money to be had in the CHL. The business of major junior hockey is now lucrative enough to make it ripe for lawyers and organizers who want a cut and for the team owners who want to keep making bank.
Do players need a formal union? Probably not. But what the CHL does need – and desperately – is a third party to arbitrate issues between agents and players and the leagues to make sure the best interests of these kids are being served.
Players already have people to advocate on their behalf in the form of agents. Like the management groups of the teams they play for – some are very good at their jobs and some aren’t. The idea of some young, timid 16-year-old being coerced into signing a contract in some Faustian bargain is naive.
They are signing up for the NHL dream. In reality, however, very few of those dreams will ever materialize. It’s chasing that dream that can often delude players and parents, leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous general managers and coaches.
The notion that these players are panhandling out of poverty on their off-days, as some would have you believe, is untrue. That does not, however, mean the status quo should be kept. The league can and should be doing a better job.
The main problem in the CHL is disparity. Some teams treat their charges like princes and other teams like paupers. There are teams that strictly enforce educational requirements for their players and others that just say they do.
And there is disparity between the leagues as well. Why should an overager in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League get a stipend of $150 per week, while the same player in the Ontario Hockey League would receive $900 a month for the same service? It’s not fair.
Compared to what players received in the 1980s and 1990s, these players have it good – but it still has a long way to go. They should be able to access their education fund for more than 18 months and if they decide not to use that education money, they should at least be given a portion of those funds based on the number of years they played in the CHL. It's their money.
The tragic death of Terry Trafford in March illustrated the need for better education and support programs around mental health and it showed how completely unprepared the OHL was to handle a real crisis. In the Western Hockey League, Tim Bozon’s family being left to foot a massive $100,000 medical bill after he spent a month in hospital with meningitis was a public relations nightmare for commissioner Ron Robison and the league. That became even more appalling when the WHL asked fans for donations to help offset the costs for the Kootenay Ice forward and import player from France.
CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch has been heralded as a trail blazer for on-ice discipline and taking steps to remove fighting from the game. Branch, and the league’s owners, however, have a history of being late to react when it comes to off-ice issues.
In 2012 the group calling itself the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association was formed in an attempt to unionize players. It was disorganized from the get-go and the fact that its executive board was veiled in secrecy made matters worse. They opened the dialog on the issue, but many of the points they made regarding the CHL were factually incorrect. The man behind the proposed was eventually revealed to be Glenn Gumbley. Glenn’s brother, Randy Gumbley, was twice convicted of defrauding hockey players, and there were reports Randy was also involved in the CHLPA. The CHLPA denied his involvement, but didn’t take long for the house of cards to crumble.
This week, Yahoo Sports spoke with Unifor president Jerry Dias, who is the latest to take a run at unionizing the CHL’s playing members. Dias was asked about Glenn Gumbley’s involvement in the new union and he said that outside of the initial setup, Gumbley was not involved. Recent reports in the Toronto Star, however, suggest that he’s still very much in the picture.
During the conversation with Dias two things stood out. The first was that Dias was not very familiar with how NCAA eligibility works in relation to the CHL. Granted, the NCAA is a bureaucratic black hole, but if you want to change the system you need to know how it works first.
The proposed union wants players to retain their NCAA eligibility. One of the steps to making that happen – as far as the NCAA is concerned – is to remove any form of stipend (or payment) players in the CHL receive above their necessary expenses. But the union is also fighting for the players to make more money playing in the CHL.
How can you fight for more money on one hand and NCAA eligibility on the other?
Dias said he was also unaware that the OHL had made changes to their player benefit packages. The league has tossed out the old $50 stipend and replaced it with a reimbursement program which maxes out at $470 per month (overagers get an honorarium on top of that). It has also changed the parameters of the league’s education package, making it accessible 18 months after a player finishes his overage year regardless of when he leaves the league. It’s now valid if the player signs a pro contract anywhere outside the NHL. Players are also entitled to claim $1,000 for off-season training.
If you’re going to argue for more in the future, you should at least know what's being given now.
The good thing for Dias is that he’ll have lots of time to read the fine print and learn about the intricacies of junior hockey. Even if the union manages to hold a successful certification vote, there’s a chance this could be tied up in the courts for years, regardless of which side claims the first win.
Back in 2012, Voy Stelmaszynski, a solicitor with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, put the legal fight in perspective.
“If you started at the Labour Board today and you wanted to have the Supreme Court of Canada hear (the case) then you’d go through all the levels of court … it could take up to six or eight years,” he said. “Those kids would be in the NHLPA by then.”