Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get More Bizarre for the CHL…

Georges Laraque gets named as executive director for an entity that might be something somewhat resembling a players’ union for those competing in the Canadian Hockey League… maybe.

News began trickling out about this apparent players’ union when a press release appeared on a site called The Junior Hockey News on Aug. 17. Then a story appeared in the Peterborough Examiner Monday, lending a little more legitimacy to this apparent union forming. Next, the Toronto Star picked up the story, filling in a few blanks later Monday. The snowball of information continued, but most in the media, CHL front offices and many players seemed skeptical.

Despite the reports, many CHL players contacted by various news outlets had been completely unaware that such an entity was in development. I contacted a few player agents myself, with only one responding, saying he would have to look into it having not heard anything himself.

Reports continued swirling, bringing more confusion than facts.

Then, earlier Tuesday, the apparent CHLPA broke news that longtime NHL enforcer Georges Laraque had been named its executive director. Laraque later confirmed via Twitter that he was indeed named to the post.

OK, so this is a real thing? Isn’t it? Well, it appears to be legitimate, but will it ever reach its desired potential of forming a legitimate player union?

Let’s be clear here, the CHLPA in theory isn’t the worst idea. The players currently have no advocates on their behalf besides their personal agents. Many, not all, teams within the three CHL leagues make an awful lot of money on the backs of these players at minimum expense to the club.

The end goal of playing in the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is making it to the NHL, but as we all know, not everyone does. In fact, most don’t.

That is where there’s a potential need for something at least like a player’s union.

The education package that CHL president David Branch lauded today as “the best scholarship program in North America” is anything but and is so chock full of limitations that less than half of the players ever actually access it. Despite improvements in recent years, Branch’s claims of it being the best in North America is laughable at best.

The CHLPA’s most noble aim, if reports and their spokespeople are to be believed, is to strengthen the education packages. Most importantly, they want the package to be available to the players for a longer period of time. There is also a desire to make the education package more consistent, as they vary player to player.

As of right now, players have 18 months after their CHL playing career has ended to access that package. So if offered a contract with a pro team in the North American minor leagues or Europe, the player has a decision to make: Continue his quest for an NHL career in earnest working his way up through the minors, or go to school, play for a Canadian Interuniversity team, possibly ending his NHL dream at age 21.

Additionally, the CHLPA would like to see just compensation for the players’ services and use of their names and likenesses.

The players are utilized in promotions by their teams, their names appear on replica jerseys or T-shirt jerseys that are for sale. Obviously, they also create the wins which drives fan interest which drives ticket sales and makes the owners money.

Player stipends, which are reportedly $50 for players under 20 and $150 for players over 20, haven’t gone up a cent in decades. Not even an adjustment for inflation. This all despite the fact that league revenues are rising across the board.

The other major issue at hand, one that is central to the need for a CHLPA is whether or not the players actually want or at least feel the need for it.

Based on the flurry of reactions from players, I’d say that there’s a good chance the vast majority do not. Aged 16-20, players may not feel that they are being taken advantage of.

They get world-class hockey development, plenty of perks that other teenagers don’t and for some, they’ll end up reaching their professional goals, while others might get part of their schooling paid for.

So do the players really care?

According to this report from Ottawa Citizen a spokesman for the CHLPA said this: 

“Players and agents feel this is long overdue,” Clark said.

“The CHL has done a great job producing players and offering some education pack-ages. The fact is more can be done.

“We’re hoping to get a positive reception from the CHL because this benefits kids and because it’s a positive step for education.”

Well, I guess we’ll have to take a CHLPA’s spokesman’s word for it. Meanwhile the only players making public comments are the ones who don’t know anything about it or even if it should exist at all.

Later, the Toronto Star reported

By week’s end, the CHLPA plans to approach the 60-team CHL and “ask them for voluntary acceptance” of the organization, said spokesperson Derek Clarke.

Although some media reports have said players and league officials are unaware of the organization’s existence, Clarke said Tuesday it has already “surpassed” the number of signatures needed — 50 per cent in some provinces, 60 per cent in others — to certify. It also plans to certify federally in the U.S., he added.

Also, according to the Citizen, the CHLPA has a board, has ratified a constitution and that the CHLPA already has player representatives for all 60 CHL teams.

How did all of this get done, allegedly over a 14-month span, without anyone in the know catching wind of it?

Coaches, administators and commissioners had not heard one word about a possible CHLPA until it trickled out in the media over the last four days.

Adding fuel to the skepticism, it appears that the CHLPA has made mistake after mistake from a public relations standpoint.

The mysterious nature by which the CHLPA was revealed made it seem sketchy from the outset. Having a press release wither leaked or sent to a blog with unknown credentials was mistake one.

The spokespeople through which the CHLPA communicated sounded on the ball and made plenty of sense, but the reaction of disbelief from players often quoted in the same stories as the spokespeople again poked holes in the legitimacy of the organization.

When the most important group of individuals that should be aware of something like this are caught off guard, there is no way to squelch the skepticism.

Then Tuesday, the CHLPA announced the hire for its most significant position came not by press release or public announcement, but by a single-line tweet to its (at the time) 100 or so followers. Not even so much as a link to a website for more information, but it’s not hard to see why. On top of it, the original tweets (since deleted) misspelled Laraque’s first name as George… twice.

The choice of Laraque is curious in itself. By all accounts a bright man, with a background in politics on top of his former playing career, it was still a surprise. Laraque’s more famous reputation as an NHL enforcer doesn’t make him any more or less qualified than anyone else, but in this bizarre saga, still made it even more bizarre.

The new executive director then no-showed a radio interview with the FAN590 in Toronto.

Oy.

Is this just a classic case of cart before the horse? There doesn’t appear to have been much of a plan here in terms of media strategy and that doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzies about what comes next.

The CHLPA’s aims are noble and almost assuredly necessary in some shape or form, but the roll out of this organization leaves so much uneasiness I’m not sure I’d be able to trust it as a player.

It sounds like CHL will be making an announcement on behalf of all three of its leagues Wednesday. Still, as of Tuesday evening, most league officials knew only about the CHLPA through what they’ve read in the media.

The potential formulation of the CHLPA is just the latest in a long line of out-of-the-ordinary happenings related to the CHL this summer, most of which have occurred within the OHL.

A pair of import players in the OHL, Alex Khokhlachev and Nicklas Jensen opted to leave their teams to return to Europe due to the CHL-NHL agreement that would keep them in the OHL if they didn’t make their NHL clubs. Those moves brought much needed scrutiny to a policy that chains players under the age of 19 to the CHL even if they’re ready for pro hockey, but not quite for the NHL.

In July, the Kitchener Rangers were embroiled in a libel lawsuit against the student newspaper at the University of Michigan over a report that they had offered Jacob Trouba $200,000 to bail on the Wolverines and play in the OHL. That has since been settled out of court.

Most significantly, the OHL levied its largest punishment in history on the Windsor Spitfires for allegedly violating player recruitment and benefit policies just weeks ago. Windsor has filed notice that they will appeal.

While each of these happenings are sure to have David Branch reaching for the Excedrin, they have raised important questions about how business is being done in the Canadian Hockey League. It’s not the mom and pop operation it once appeared to be from the outside. It’s big business and there’s a lot of inequity within it.

Where any of this takes the league next, who knows? Regardless, it’s hopefully for the better. The CHL and its member leagues really are good at what they do and have helped a lot of players reach their goals, but none of them are above careful examination and a desire for equity among its member clubs and certainly among its players.

Should the CHLPA succeed in its quest to be certified as a union in the U.S. and Canada, it could have a significant impact on the future of the CHL as we know it. United States of Hockey will continue monitoring the happenings however more insane they get.

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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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4 Responses to Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get More Bizarre for the CHL…

  1. Anonymous says:

    Youth and minor hockey in Canada is a racket. The CHLPA should have been put together years ago!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hopefully this union takes hold and eventually expands to leagues like the USHL and NAHL!

  3. I think it would be great if they make a great education much more attainable for the players that don’t make it to the NHL; which has to be a gigantic majority of the kids. Who wants to peak at 17 and then come out of the Dub, O, or Q shackled by a lousy education?

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