The last few days have been bizarre, to say the least. Bizarre, but probably really important. Because the CHLPA does not yet exist as a certified players’ union, what is currently being waged is nothing more than a public relations battle.
When it comes to quests to acquire favorable opinion from the public, some are more impactful than others. What makes this one important is that there are important questions being raised to the public and since the CHLPA cannot enact anything just yet, the public will have to be the ones who dictate what happens next. Will it be status quo or will public scrutiny bring about change in the Canadian Hockey League?
The CHLPA may never reach its full potential as a full-on players union, with immense legal hurdles to overcome and more importantly, a potentially unwilling player base. That said, it has forced a public debate surrounding the Canadian Hockey League, how it operates and how its players are treated. It’s not the first time the CHL has faced questions, but never has the organization received such widespread examination.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s a slow news period for hockey with little movement in the NHL CBA negotiations. That only gives more time and attention to the issues that the CHLPA raise.
If the CHLPA’s execution of its introduction to the public wasn’t so maddeningly flawed, they’d probably be winning this PR battle.
Many in the hockey media have been quick to agree with the CHLPA’s lofty aims of fair treatment of the teenage gladiators on whose backs CHL teams make their profit. Despite all of the missteps, a lot of people still think the CHLPA is a good idea in theory.
The CHL has shot back, releasing a statement Wednesday. Then Thursday morning, CHL president and commissioner of the OHL, David Branch, joined Mike Farwell and Jim Lang on FAN590 in Toronto to expand. The interview can be heard in its entirety here.
There weren’t a lot of new revelations, but Branch did reiterate that he has not heard from the CHLPA, which apparently has been remedied according to this tweet:
The CHL has been contacted by Georges Laraque to preliminary talks with the CHLPA. Still waiting for a response from CHL branch
— CHLPA (@theCHLPA) August 23, 2012
They might be missing a word, but at least they got the executive director’s name right this time.
I’m not sure these talks will amount to much of anything anyway. The CHLPA had mentioned it was hopeful the CHL would voluntarily recognize the proposed players’ union. Based on Branch’s statement and interview with FAN590, it probably would not be safe to assume the CHL is on board with that idea.
However, Branch doesn’t seem as concerned about fending off the CHLPA as he is defending the image of the OHL and CHL overall.
Branch sounded particularly defensive over the education packages offered by CHL teams. According to Branch in his interview with Lang and Farwell, 222 OHL alumni were on scholarship at 57 colleges and universities across Canada last year. According to QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau (who also said his league is a “school of life”), 129 players in the QMJHL accessed their education package in 2010-11, accounting for half a million dollars in grants from the league. WHL numbers have been more difficult to come by.
An estimated 32 percent of CHL players were accessing the education package Branch calls the “best in North America, maybe even the world” in 2009. Based on the recent numbers the commissioners are providing, that number has gone up, but not by much. So, as James Mirtle who wrote about this same topic in 2009 asked Wednesday, if only five percent of these players ever make it to the NHL, what happens to the other 60-or-so percent?
Additionally, Branch said parents are in support of the 18 month limit on access to education packages, telling Lang and Farwell:
[Parents] want to make sure their son doesn’t fall into a trap where maybe he’s playing in minor pro hockey and maybe he doesn’t have the skill set. The sooner he makes up his mind to jump back into the mainstream of academics, the better. The longer a player is away from school, the [less] likely chances of him returning school. We view that as a great opportunity and important component to the overall program afforded our players.
OK, sure. That makes sense. However, even though it is more difficult for a player to get back into the swing of things academically after years away, does that mean he shouldn’t have the option to try? What if a player gives the ECHL or AHL or Europe an honest try over two years and realizes its time to hang up the skates? Sorry, Timmy, you’re on your own.
This wouldn’t be an issue at all if the players didn’t drive ticket and merchandise sales, or are used in team promotions. I had to pay my own way through loans and some help from my parents to get through college like a lot of kids, but I also didn’t put butts in seats to help my company’s owner haul in a decent profit while making next to nothing in the process.
With such low stipends, remuneration in the form of paying for education seems like a completely fair trade off. If the CHL believes itself to be the best developmental hockey league in the world, shouldn’t it afford the players an opportunity to try and pursue their NHL dream by playing in the minors for a few extra years? If it doesn’t work out, that player can seek belated payment for his contributions to his club in the form of getting his education paid for.
On the issue of stipends, Branch said:
The $50 weekly stipend really hurts us, no question. We decided instead of trying to put a few more dollars in the pockets weekly to the player, we drive it into programs to support their needs and it’s a significant cost to our owners.
Branch mentioned the concussion prevention program, education package, anti-doping and drug abuse prevention programs and Sheldon Kennedy’s Respect in Sport program to help prevent abuse. All are important programs, for sure.
This all rings hollow as PR speak however. The CHL doesn’t give the money to players because its teams are spending more on programs that benefit players. That sounds nice and all, but it’s hard for me to believe — outside of the education packages that apparently only 30-40 percent of players are accessing — those costs would be so significant that the owners couldn’t have at least raised the player stipend to account for inflation.
Branch told the radio hosts, “There is great care and great concern for our young people. I view part of my role as commissioner to look after the players.”
I honestly believe David Branch when he says that. I believe that most owners in the CHL aren’t making a ton of money with their Junior teams and that they do genuinely care about the players, but Branch has a responsibility to make sure those owners are making as much money as they possibly can.
Additionally, there is the issue Branch raised in the CHL statement that each team in the CHL is a separate corporation and therefore would require separate unions. College hockey recruiting guru Chris Heisenberg brought up several valid points challenging the validity of that statement in a series of must-read tweets.
Whether accurate or not, based on Branch’s comments, he sees nothing wrong with how the league treats its players, and while CHL owners and administrators are not monsters, they probably aren’t doing all that they could be doing.
This is why the CHL is in need of a third-party watch dog of some kind. Branch mentioned how a players’ agent and family are his advocates. Which, while true, doesn’t appear to be enough based on the facts.
The players get many benefits and perks, but are those benefits and perks equitable when compared to what the player provides the owner? That is the important question.
It’s interesting that many of the players that have voiced support for the CHLPA are those that have their junior days behind them. With the benefit of hindsight, they might be realizing that the teams didn’t always do what they could for them. Even newly minted $42-milllion man Taylor Hall besmirched the $44 he received weekly while leading the Windsor Spitfires to back-to-back Memorial Cups.
Bruce Peter over at Puck Worlds also has a great piece laying out a number of other concerns players might have that require advocacy on their behalf.
By laying out the inefficiencies in junior hockey, the CHLPA may have put the wheels in motion, in part, on what it set out to do. It forced examination and scrutiny, which are vehicles for the change the CHLPA seeks.
The CHL has gotten by rather easily in how it operates despite revenues going up and cost, in terms of player benefits, remaining essentially the same. Some in the media have called the education package into question in the past, but the CHLPA may bring sustained discussion and debate regarding the claims that it is the best in the world. It is that sustained discussion that could in the end benefit the players.
I’ve been awfully hard on the CHLPA for its series of mistakes during its infancy — which includes not having all of its facts straight despite an alleged 14 months of development — but I applaud what they have accomplished just driving this most important discussion.
Even if this ends up being nothing more than a PR battle, which it looks like it probably will, it remains crucial. I am not confident that the CHLPA will reach its full potential, but if the last few days are any indication, they’ve made a significant impact on Junior hockey as we know it already.