Junior hockey labour spat obscures an opportunity for both sides
Brandon Wheat Kings' Paul Ciarelli, left, scores on Calgary Hitmen's goalie Chris Driedger during first period WHL playoff hockey action in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, March 22, 2012.
For those who have a hankering for hockey leagues with labour trouble — and if your pulse quickens over that thought, maybe you should beef up your cable package — this is shaping up to be a banner year.
Not only is the NHL entrenched in an extended squabble with its players but the Canadian Hockey League, the body that oversees major junior hockey, was informed in writing last week by the nascent Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association that it could be facing a lawsuit over the “blatant disregard for the bare minimum working standards that have been set for employees.”
This is not the first time the CHLPA, which was formed in August with former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque as its executive director, has given the CHL something of a glove shampoo. Earlier this fall, the CHLPA released revenue figures it said it had calculated for the 60 teams in the three leagues — the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — that comprise the CHL. The association said the CHL had revenue of $250 million, $157 million of that from ticket sales and the average revenue per team was $2.7 million. The CHLPA’s math has been questioned by some but it seems safe to say junior hockey is no longer the mom-and-pop operation it once was. It is a big business.
Recognizing that, the CHLPA says the CHL does not pay its players minimum wage, does not provide holiday or overtime pay and does not make contributions to the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance on behalf of players. Junior players typically receive a weekly stipend of between $35 and $50 a week.
The CHL has not met with the CHLPA but it has rebuffed the association’s charges, saying in a statement it operates “with the best interest of the players in mind, at all times.”
An element of mystery has heightened this duel. The CHLPA says it has an executive board that has four players presently in the CHL. The CHLPA, fearing retribution against those players, won’t release their names until it is certified as a union.
The intrigue veered another way this week when TSN reported it had spoken to two different people who both said they were CHLPA spokesman Derek Clarke and that one of those people may be Randy Gumbley, a former hockey coach who has been twice convicted of fraud. The CHL confirmed it hired a private investigator to determine who Derek Clarke really was. The CHLPA said Gumbley has no connection with them.
And you thought the NHL negotiations were fun.
Both sides need a major timeout here, a pause to regroup and form a more level-headed assessment of what is to come. With Laraque on board -- for now; reports this week said he would resign — it is tempting to clobber the CHLPA for going in fists first, an approach that was far too aggressive and hardheaded for a body that isn’t even certified yet. The issues the CHLPA wants to champion will hardly disappear overnight. The association is best advised to get its own house in order first — certify, educate your members — and then talk to the CHL. Maybe next time, try a little soft shoe instead of going all Gangnam style.
CHL President Dave Branch has been involved in junior hockey for more than 30 years, serving as head of the CHL since 1996, so if he hasn’t seen it all, he has probably imagined what it would be like. Branch has actively worked at reducing fighting in junior hockey, establishing that he is already more open-minded than most in the hockey world. But brandish a public letter accusing him of unfair labour practices and of course he is going to respond robustly. Given another chance, Branch might relish working with an established union. It would help erode the notion that all these fresh-faced teenage hockey players — a small percentage of whom make it to the NHL — are really indentured servants in a multi-million-dollar empire.
If these two groups can get together after this start, maybe they can school their counterparts in the NHL.