CHL, CHLPA Embroiled in Important PR Battle

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:

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.

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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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22 Responses to CHL, CHLPA Embroiled in Important PR Battle

  1. Anonymous says:

    Question….why so much focus on the CHL (not that they do not deserve it) and so little on the USHL and NAHL? Are not those junior owners making money off the back of junior aged players? What is worse is that they provide far less to their players than the CHL does.

    • Chris Peters says:

      You bring up a very interesting point and it is something that I have thought about quite a bit.

      The USHL and NAHL have stricter rules about how they can utilize their players’ names and likenesses as well as what benefits they can provide due to NCAA rules.

      Additionally, while both the USHL and NAHL are for-profit entities, I don’t believe their revenue comes close to what teams are making in the CHL.

      Both leagues provide education, housing and a free developmental outlet all while keeping players NCAA eligible.

      So they are similar, but different in that regard. Good question though.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You can make the argument, however, that the CHL keeps its players eligible for Canadian University hockey so they are no different from the USHL in that regard. Their revenue might not come close to what the CHL earns but then again the CHL as a whole provides better coaching (since they earn more they can afford top of the line coaching staffs) and unlike the USHL, actually provides education money to its players. Furthermore,the CHL is also able to provide greater “benefits” because they do not need to worry about those silly NCAA restrictions In short, the CHL does more for its players because of higher revenue streams.
    All this, however, does not change the basic fact that both the USHL and NAHL are for profit entities (money off the backs of minors) yet are not receiving any where near the scrutiny that the CHL is.
    And don’t get me started on the NCAA and their exploitation of its “student-athletes”!

  3. Chris Peters says:

    I think you made some good points, though I think your shot at the coaches is a little unfair. I don’t think the USHL or NAHL are above scrutiny as for-profit entities and never said what they provide is better than the CHL. It’s something I’ll have to take a deeper look at.

  4. Ben says:

    It does seem a bit odd that you need to focus on the CHL and its issues, while ignoring the issues in the USHL, NAHL or even the NCAA. My son’s friend plays in the NCAA, and while his coach drives $100,000 cars based on his salary, my son’s friend can’t afford to go to a movie. If you’re going to be a fair and balanced reporter, shouldn’t you talk on all issues? Not just CHL issues? I’m not saying that you have a bias, but it is odd.

  5. Chris Peters says:

    I think it is worth looking into the USHL and NAHL more and there has been plenty of thought given to players receiving compensation in the NCAA on a wide level.

    That said, a $40,000-$50,000 scholarship annually, is a form of compensation all while a player is playing. A $50 stipend and the part-time tuition players are getting while they play in the CHL currently pales in comparison to those figures. Gilles Courteau said that the QMJHL paid out a total of $500,000 to 129 former players in 2010-11 which is an average of about $3,875.00 per player. That’s a bit of a gap.

    Not every kid in the NCAA is on a full ride, but just like in the CHL, your education package is based on your ability. The better you are, the more likely it is you are contributing value to the team, therefore the larger your annual scholarship.

    There has been talk of building in stipends as part of NCAA scholarships, since the athletes can’t get jobs and afford those incidentals. It’s something definitely worth exploring further and would be a step in the right direction.

    I don’t feel that the NCAA is without flaws, but I do feel that the hockey players in college hockey are receiving fair value for what they generate for their schools at the present.

    • Dave says:

      I just wanted to point out that Quebec tuition is highly subsidized and quite cheap compared to other provinces Universities and much cheaper then US. Considering the $3875 average vs $40-50,000.

  6. Ben says:

    “I don’t feel that the NCAA is without flaws’

    Then why don’t you ever write blogs about them? I see some CHL stuff all the time, but never a blog sticking up for the kids who can’t make ends meet? Morally, I can’t see why a coach can drive an expensive car and Athletic departments heads making millions, while these kids struggle to put it together.

    I get that the CHL has its warts, you talk about them all the time, but there are just as many issues in the NCAA, but I never read about them on here. It’s frustrating, given that I know kids in the NCAA, and they wish people would look harder at some of the things that go on.

  7. Chris Peters says:

    Like I said at the end, I think the scholarship money is just compensation and would be in favor of a stipend for college athletes. That’s the extent of my gripes.

    The issues that plague other NCAA sports, namely football and basketball, are different from hockey. The hockey programs don’t generate nearly the amount of money those two sports do, yet hockey players receive the same benefits as football and basketball players.

    My gripe with the CHL is that it claims its education program is the best in the world without a shred of proof that it is and a mountain of facts that it’s not. There’s also concern for the 55-60% of CHL players that don’t make the NHL and don’t access their education pack before it expires.

    I think it’s an apples and oranges argument between the two education packages and the ways players are compensated. There is a large disparity in the value between the two education packages. Based on its education agreement, the QMJHL, just to use them as an example again, is paying out a max of $20,000 over a four-year span. That wouldn’t cover one year at many of the schools in NCAA hockey.

    A scholarship may not be compensation per se, but as far as hockey is concerned, it’s fair trade for what the players generate for the school.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Your assuming that post secondary education costs as much in the U.S. as Quebec, which of course it does not and is far less to be exact. Perhaps a union ought to take hold in NCAA hockey since why is it “fair” that a player at Michigan State receives a package valued at 15 thousand a year (in state tuition plus residency) while a player at Notre Dame receives “compensation” valued at 35 thousand per year.
    Why is it that players at Michigan (who do indeed generate revenue for the hockey program and the school) are not allowed to hold any form of employment nor accept any type of gifts yet the head coach receives a handsome salary of over 500K per year and drives a free car provided for by the school?
    Yes, there is little question that full unionization of NCAA hockey is necessary to right these gross injustices.

    • Chris Peters says:

      I’m not assuming anything. What the cost of education in Quebec is, is irrelevant. The cheap tuition benefits the QMJHL if anything else. The good news is, those players get educated, the bad news is, they might not be receiving just compensation compared to the value they created for their teams.

      We’re again trying to compare apples to oranges. If a QMJHL player gets a max of $20,000 on top of the stipend he gets weekly, he’s still not getting as much as the player at Michigan State receiving $15,000 annually in terms of dollars and cents. As far as the Notre Dame player is concerned, he’s likely getting more in return for the value he creates for the school. There is certainly disparity in the cost of tuition per school, but I’d argue that most players on a full scholarship are receiving fair value.

      In the Michigan scenario, NCAA rules do not bar players from having part-time jobs (though they do regulate them and their schedules are rather prohibitive) and no they cannot accept gifts, nor can CHL players according to what just happened to Windsor.

      Lastly, I don’t get the fixation on what coaches make and what kind of cars they drive or how they’re provided. I don’t think college hockey coaches are overpaid, considering the value they generate for the schools through putting together winning programs and are most often utilized as the promotional face of the team. Football and basketball are different stories, but a lot of that is driven by competition for their services.

      NCAA players can’t unionize as they are not defined as employees by U.S. labor laws. Players in the CHL may not be considered employees in the eyes of Canadian labor laws, either. That said, there has been activism on NCAA athletes’ behalf,. There hasn’t been much for players in the CHL. I’ve been very clear that I don’t think the CHLPA will end up reaching its full potential as a certified union, but appreciate the questions they raise and the scrutiny they’ve brought. It’s obviously led to discussions like these, which, whether we agree or not, is important.

  9. Anonymous says:

    So is a player receiving just compensation at Michigan State compared to revenues being generated because they are offering him a scholarship valued at 90% of full tution/residency?(remember that full 100% scholarships are very very rare) yet the Q player is some how being shortchanged because he is receiving an education at McGill that covers full tuition? Just because Michigan’s tution costs more, it does not make it a greater value. It is simply a reflection of government subsidization or lack there of.
    This “compensation” is not some portable commodity, like currency, that can be exchanged for another type of good or service. Yet you seem to find it acceptable that a U.S. college player on a full ride is receiving just compensation but a CHLer player in the same situation at a CIS institution is somehow being shortchanged…..you cannot have it both ways. You cannot place one amateur system on trial without shining a light on all others.

    • Chris Peters says:

      I would actually agree that cost doesn’t necessarily equal value in education. However, that still leaves a disparity in the amount of money contributed from each entity for which the player creates value. This has been my point all along. The Q has the benefit of cheap costs.

      Also, we’re getting away from other important factors like the 18-month limit, the lack of protection from being released and therefore losing potential to acquire the full education package. Getting traded, thus altering academic situations, is another concern raised.

      NCAA athletes cannot be released from their scholarships due to on-ice performance. They can’t be traded. They can transfer at their will, not the team’s. These are other significant differences between the two.

      • Anonymous says:

        Tell me, wouldn’t the vast majority of players coming out of the sanctioned NCAA feeder leagues love the opportunity afforded to the CHL players of being able to play pro hockey for up to 18 months before tapping into their scholarships? I honestly have to believe they would and rather as being a negative for the CHL, their 18 month window is a positive.
        Scholarships are renewed on a yearly basis and a player can indeed have his
        scholarship amount reduced because of on-ice factors.
        Sure a college player can transfer, but the penalty for doing so is crippling! They lose an entire year of hockey. So if they cannot get along with the coaching staff or, as is most often the case in the NCAA, certain promises were not kept, the player has only one option….transfer and lose an entire year of development. At least the CHL can ask for a trade and lose nothing in the process.

  10. Anthony C says:

    ” Just because Michigan’s tution costs more, it does not make it a greater value.”

    Thats actually a hell of a good point…

  11. Ben says:

    I kinda wish Chris would address that comment by ‘Anonymous’, but it appears to be moot, as he doesn’t look interested.

    Again, I just wish that we would see more…honesty..about the NCAA. It can’t be all negative CHL all the time. Saying the NCAA has issues, but choosing not to talk about them, questions objectivity, at least in my mind.

    • Chris Peters says:

      Ask and ye shall receive…

      Would players from the feeder leagues prefer to give pro an 18-month tryout or would they rather round out their developmental years before signing? I think most would choose the latter, knowing that they’re playing at a high level from ages (depending on when they enroll) 18-25 and will be better prepared for the pro game at that point. A lot of players can gauge their readiness. There’s a reason only a handful of kids have signed contracts straight from the USHL. It’s a developmental league, but most players coming out of there aren’t finished products.

      On transfers, depending on when a player transfers he may not have to lose any development time at all. Some situations will warrant him having to sit out a year, but most players who do that are still playing hockey in Junior A, assuming they’re under 20, which most transfers will be. He might not playing at the highest level for his age and ability, but he’s still playing a high level of developmental hockey, often in a significant role on the team he’s playing for. Sometimes that extra year in junior is even more beneficial to the player. It’s not like he has no options if he transfers.

      And if you’re looking for objectivity, I’ve made it pretty clear on my thoughts. Looking at all the facts presented and knowing what I know about about both policies and scholarships, I feel that the NCAA education package and CHL package are incomparable. I’m here to give my opinion, and my opinion is that you can’t put both in the same boat. Like I said before, the NCAA is not a perfect system, but I don’t feel kids that play college hockey are getting under-compensated for what they produce for the school. College football and basketball? Now that’s a different story entirely.

      The CHLPA has put the CHL education package in the spotlight, so that’s what I’m covering and analyzing as someone who closely follows junior hockey.

  12. Ben says:

    Sorry Chris,

    I probably did not articulate myself as well as I would have hoped. Here are the two things you have not commented on…

    1. Never posting ‘Negative’ on the NCAA

    I don’t truly care what you write about, it’s your blog. What I think hurts (optically) it is the fact that once and a while we see a post with a negative slant on the CHL with the qualifier that ‘the NCAA has issues’. Well, speak to those issues. Journalistic integrity suggest that its something you should explore. If its ok to talk about the negatives of the CHL, it should be ok to talk about the negatives of the NCAA, no? I’ve just never seen you post an article about issues in the NCAA. Not suggesting that there is a bias there, but its interesting that it is something that never gets touched on.

    2. Value of education.

    In Canada, you don’t get much better then McGill. Im in a position to hire graduates, and someone who has a McGill education is looked upon as much more valuable to employers then most US educations. Thats not our standards, that industry standards. So, the dollar value that is placed on a US scholarship for Canadian athletes is perhaps $20,000 – $30,000 (we can argue weather or not it actually costs them that, but not the point), but the players do see that value here in Canada. So, the fact that they only get $4,000 to a school like Queens or McGill may be a negative to Chris Peters, but an education at those Canadian schools is much more valuable to job seekers in Canada, and gets them more money and better opportunities when in the job hunt.

    If you could comment on those two specific points, it would be appreciated.

    • Chris Peters says:

      Hi Ben,

      My journalistic integrity tells me to write about what people are talking about. Additionally, if you think I’ve never written a negative word about college hockey, you must be new here. I’ve already addressed that my opinion, steeped in careful examination, is that college hockey’s education package is more than adequate based on what the player generates for the school, since that is the topic at hand.

      Lastly, I have not once turned my nose up to the value of education in Canadian schools. What I was specifically talking about was the actual dollar amount, which is what dictates the kind of investment the team has to make on behalf of the player (which is exactly the point). So yes, they are getting a fantastic free education at a Canadian university, but it is at a minimal cost to the team, which is where the disparity in compensation vs. value generated becomes an issue if you’re comparing the two education packages.

  13. Ben says:

    Then I think your missing the point Chris.

    The point is what is more valuable to the kids. My background, industry studies and my peers suggest that Canadian University Degree’s have a higher value to these kids vs. a significant amonut of NCAA programs. Therefore, the actaul value to the players post hockey is higher when they get their diplomas. If im a player, and a parent, THATS what I care about. I care about what will set me up best for the future. If I am a player, I want to get the best education that sets me up for the future. If that costs me $1 or a $1,000,000, I could honestly care less. Its about the value that I recieve at the end of the day.

    I understand that you look it if from a cost and expense point of view, but thats not how players SHOULD look at it, it should be about sets them up for the best in 5-10 years, not what education may cost more.

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