Hockey Lockouts and Player Unions: Why aren’t we paying attention to our back yard?

By: Bruce Darden

It is the fall, and the beginning of the hockey season for many of us in Ontario. All of the attention is squarely focused on the NHL and its once per decade work stoppage. All across the province, people can be heard talking about how greedy the owners are or why can’t the players be happy to get an average-Joe’s wage. The problem is that the NHL lockout should not be what we, hockey fans, should be talking about.

Far less media attention is being paid to the other unionization campaign that is occurring in Canadian hockey this autumn: The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is in the middle of a unionization drive by its players. This includes the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), which will be the beneficiary of much of the hockey-dollars that would have been spent on the NHL this fall. I know that as a student and a low waged worker that I have made the choice to see exciting—and far cheaper—hockey at the major junior level before, but I won’t be doing that this year.

CHL players are paid $50 a week or $7.14 a day! Because of this salary they are considered professionals and cannot apply to U.S. colleges and universities, since that is against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules (which is an equally appalling rule based on what some American universities make off their sports programs). On top of this, the NHL and the CHL have a rule that 19-year players cannot play in the American Hockey League (AHL, the ‘farm system’ for the NHL) that has a minimum salary of $40,500 USD.i All this collusion and manipulation creates a league where the players are forced into making literally a few loonies or not playing at all, while the owners are making millions.

But it is not the money (or lack there of) that has created a movement to form a union in the hockey world’s best junior leagues, rather it is about education.

Right now a major junior hockey player is entitled to an education package only if that player does not sign an NHL contract, and applies the package within 18 months of finishing their CHL hockey career. The executive director of the Canadian Hockey League Players Association (or the CHLPA or the name of the fledgling association) George Laraque calls the CHL’s education plan a “joke”: “Hockey Canada has given $6 million to the CHL which is $2 million per league and they’ve only spent $400,000-$600,000. There’s so much money left that goes directly into the team’s pocket.”ii If you take the high side of the CHLPA estimates, than each of the 20 OHL teams is roughly making $70,000 for their players being denied their educational packages because of the owners’ and the CHL’s imposed time frame. Politicians, corporations, and education consulates are not the only ones looking to make money off the education industry: hockey clubs and their owners also see it as a way to pad their bottom line.

The players’ union is looking to change the length of the expiry date on the education plan. Many players do not go directly on to university or college, but often attempt to carry on their dreams by playing in the lower professional leagues (such as the AHL or the East Coast Hockey League) for a few years before attending post-secondary schooling. This fight is so that more of the players will have access to their education plan when their hockey dreams die out (just to be clear, the majority of CHL players do not go on to make millions in the NHL). The union is also looking at ways to have the players’ “pay cheques” transferred to the union and be distributed as “per diems” so that these high school students (that happen to play hockey) can still apply for, and be accepted into American universities and colleges.iii

Another change that the players’ union is looking into is ways to improve working conditions for the student-athletes. The union is looking into becoming an intermediary to help solve off-ice problems for these young men. As Laraque said recently “every time that there is a problem we’re going to deal with it. There’s a 1-800 number and whether the problem is social, hazing, intimidation, alcohol, any type of abuse, we’re going to be a special line assistant, just like what the NHLPA has.”[i]iv[/i] It is a positive development that the CHLPA is working on a structure to help, because right now if a player does complain they could be subject to benchings or other unofficial disciplinary measures.

The naysayers claim this is another money grab by the players—and the more cynical claim, a money grab by CHLPA officials themselves. In reality, George Laraque and the union’s lawyers are working for free, Laraque even gave up a media job in Montreal, where he worked for a TV station that is owned by a junior team, to help give these student-athletes a voice. And that is all Laraque is: a voice. While it might be a stretch to see this as identical to the idea of non-representative of the Quebec Student Strike, but practically there is a similarity. Like the student spokespeople, Laraque is just a mouthpiece without the authority to make decisions for the players: “I don’t decide anything; however, I just transmit their (players) message to the league. I fight for their rights but all of the messages that I’ve been saying come from them because they can’t talk to the media [for fear of retaliation by the owners and management].”v We can debate and argue about the parallel between the two struggles, but I still see young people—on both sides—standing up and saying that they want a say in their educational futures, rather than just having companies decide for them.

Even if this struggle was not about education and working conditions, I still would argue that hockey fans should support the CHLPA since they are paid far below minimum wage in a multi-million dollar industry. And that is a shame. As hockey fans we should be paying attention to the labour negotiations, but instead of spending hours worrying if the Maple Leafs are ever going to get back on the ice, lets look to major junior hockey. Not as a substitute for the NHL, but towards the student-athletes that are standing up for their own futures.


iii It should be noted that not all players are Canadian, and there are multiple based in the American (Erie Otters, Plymouth Whalers, Saginaw Spirit, Portland WinterHawks, Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs, and Tri-City Americans)

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