Looking Back at the Soap Opera that is (was?) the CHLPA

RIP, CHLPA. You died as you lived… One ball of crazy after the other.

If you’ve been following the news surrounding the proposed Canadian Hockey League Players Association, you now know one thing for sure. It’s a complete and utter disaster. People with multiple identities, a potential fraudster pulling the strings, the Canadian Hockey League employing a private investigator (hopefully sporting a Hawaiian shirt, aviators and the best mustache that ever lived) and one bizarre step after another.

The fallout led executive director Georges Laraque to step away from the organization, telling the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle:

“The cause is good,” he said as part of a 20-minute conversation about his decision late Thursday night. “It’s just that we’re not experienced enough. We’re not a strong enough team to do this. People have real jobs. It’s a big project.

“It’s better to give it to a real union [group] so they can do this. I believe in it. I think the right team could do this, especially after all that we’ve done. For those kids, we’re not quitting. We’re passing it on.”

The lack of experience was noticeable from the get go, even before Laraque signed on. However, things started to get serious last week when the CHLPA started getting reputable labor lawyers involved, including Michael Mazzuca, a former OHL player. The CHLPA threatened legal action, through Mazzuca’s firm if the OHL refused to meet with the group’s leadership.

The CHLPA had also retained counsel of Vancouver-based Victory Square Law Office, LLP, which was helping with the organizations attempt to be certified by the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

Both law firms, among others, have withdrawn counsel in the fall out of the latest revelations.

However, the fact that these law firms got involved at all meant that this organization — no matter how slimy it had seemed even back in August — was perhaps on to something.

A certification vote was to be held today in Cape Breton, N.S., which would have been a huge step in the process toward legitimacy for this union. A complaint had been filed by a former QMJHL player — it has since been rescinded — with the labor board and things were beginning to move. It also had appeared many members of the Sherbrooke Phoenix had signed union cards, another step forward for the union. All of that has been wiped out in the wake of reports that convicted fraudster Randy Gumbley was intimately involved with the CHLPA.

The progress that was made makes this spectacular implosion all the more intriguing. The CHL obviously had multiple incentives to ensure that this organization never got off the ground, no matter who was running it.

CHL president David Branch told Sunaya Sapurji of Y! Sports Canada, “We started to get concerned based on the information coming to us.. So we did this for the safety and security of our players. We felt it was important to find out who Derek Clarke is and there were repeated requests to find out who he was and we never had any contact.”

While the safety of the players should always be and likely is of concern to Branch, the CHLPA has been around since August. Why wasn’t anything done sooner?

The timing of the implosion coincides with the CHLPA’s most aggressive action to date, by applying for certification and retaining reputable legal counsel. So, yes, I’m sure the safety of the players was important, but when the union started becoming an actual threat to the bottom line, the trigger was pulled on discrediting this group.

The proposed union had to not only be discredited, it had to be utterly destroyed. Based on who is apparently running it, the destruction was not difficult to inflict. Once Gumbley’s name began being floated by the CHL to multiple members of the media, the walls began tumbling down.

The story unraveled like a bad soap opera, with chief spokesperson Derek Clarke and alleged CHLPA founder Glenn Gumbley seemingly being the same person, but maybe not. And further down the rabbit hole we went.

By completely destroying any ounce of credibility this group had, the CHL has a good chance of saving face in what has been an ugly couple of months of accusations. However, many agreed that despite the utter lack of organization or tact, the CHLPA had raised several good points, which brought scrutiny to the CHL from media entities large and small.

Junior hockey makes some people uncomfortable, and it’s not hard to see why. Teams in junior hockey — and this includes Junior A entities in the U.S. and Canada — are for-profit businesses. They operate under the model of pro-like atmospheres without paying pro salaries. Providing entertainment without paying the entertainers, if you will.

In return, players either reach their goal of professional hockey, or in the CHL’s case, they can take an education package to a local university. Acquiring the package isn’t always as simple as it seems.

It was the CHLPA that brought much-needed scrutiny to a woefully inconsistent education package across the three leagues. CHL officials often tout their leagues’ packages as “the best in the world,” which is easy, because it’s the only of its kind in the world. So if you compare it to nothing, then sure, it’s OK.

There have been instances where players were unable to utilize their package and there is an expiration date. A player has 18 months to access the package, which may not allow that player enough time to let go of the career he’s chased for the entirety of his young life.

Then there was the CHLPA’s misguided attempt to attain NCAA eligibility without having a clear understanding what and who made CHL players professional in the eyes of the governing body. I’ve now been told through an NCAA source that no proposals for removing or changing the rules have been made, though the NCAA did confirm they’ve had ongoing discussions with CHLPA officials.

The CHLPA never seemed all together, but it was just organized enough and had some of the right people involved to make it seem somewhat feasible, bordering on the legitimate. With folks like Georges Laraque and eventually former NHLPA advisor Ron Pink putting some weight behind the CHLPA, there was reason for this story to be covered.

As we now know, the sketchiness of this organization was even worse than we could have ever imagined, with people using multiple identities and hiding behind emails and phone calls without ever appearing in person. Now that the jig is up, Glenn Gumbley, the man calling himself the founder of the CHLPA is still making attempts to keep this thing alive (It’s dead, Glenn… Give it up).

I’ve been vocal since August that I thought the people behind the CHLPA were disingenuous in their aims. Early literature leaked by the organization made it seem much more like a money grab than an actual noble cause for fairness. There was even talk of trying to dip into Hockey Canada’s coffers, a huge business, but also a non-profit entity. At the same time though, the group kept making some valid points, if you were able to get past some of the outlandish ones.

This was bound to happen sooner or later and the CHL was probably right to act as it did in squashing this thing before more damage was done. That said, what the CHLPA did was raise important questions, questions that may be pushed aside in the rush to laugh at the misfortune of this tremendous failure.

CHL players are not playing under sweatshop conditions, as the CHLPA had claimed as recently as last week, but major junior and really junior hockey in general is not perfect. It probably never will be.

Even though the CHLPA is now little more than a bad joke, perhaps it displays a need for some type of third-party advocacy group on the players. As of right now there is no significant watch dog for Junior hockey and when there is so much money at stake and teenagers are involved, perhaps there should be.

I do believe David Branch and CHL owners care about their players and want what’s best for them, but the business elements of junior hockey cannot be denied.

A conglomeration of current and former players, parents, player agents and team administrators could do a lot of good, if only to ensure that the best interests of the players are always at the forefront of what has become a growing business in the U.S. and Canada.

The CHLPA was never going to be the answer, but maybe there is a better answer somewhere out there, one that truly puts the players first. We owe it to these young players to find it.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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2 Responses to Looking Back at the Soap Opera that is (was?) the CHLPA

  1. James says:

    Ever since Laraque blew off that radio interview (or some type of interview), I had a feeling it was going downhill. Just the fact the CHLPA came out of absolute nowhere was a bad start. A project like this should take at least 6 months-1 year to get all the right people, set attainable goals, and negotiate with CHL executives. I feel like something similar to the CHLPA will eventually be formed and will benefit the players.

  2. Anonymous says:

    An advisory board consisting of parents, agents, former players, and team representatives would go a long way to resolving the real issues, while protecting the players from unscrupulous groups interested in solely lining their own pockets. The CHL needs to use this soap opera as an opportunity to put something in place before another independent group gets involved.

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