By Dave Waddell -
Labor turbulence in hockey looks like it may spread beyond the current stare down between the NHL and its players union.
A proposed union representing over 1,300 major junior hockey players in the Canadian Hockey League – which includes the Plymouth Whalers and Saginaw Spirit – will move this week to make applications for certification to labor boards across Canada and in the U.S. where CHL teams are based.
The union, which will be called the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association, has been 14 months in the making and has announced former NHLer Georges Laraque as its executive director.
“Players and agents feel this is long overdue,” said Derek Clarke, a spokesman for the CHLPA.
“The CHL has done a great job producing players and offering some education packages. 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.”
Clarke said a board of directors has been selected, a constitution ratified, a bargaining committee has been formed and regional directors are in place. He added that the CHLPA already has player representatives for all 59 CHL teams.
Reaction from CHL and Hockey Canada officials has been somewhat muted while CHL players have also been quiet.
The union, which remains shadowy in its origin and membership, won’t officially unveil the details of its organization until it receives certification from the various labor boards.
Clarke said all would be reviled before the end of the month.
“We already have enough (60 per cent or more of all players) signed up to seek a labor application,” Clark said. “We plan to move quickly now.
“This week, we will be sending a letter to the CHL commissioner Dave Branch and all three junior leagues seeking some preliminary talks.”
CHL commissioner/OHL president Dave Branch has refused comment on the proposed union until he receives more information. Editor’s update: Here’s the link to a release from Branch.
However, Branch’s denial that he hadn’t heard about the plans has been refuted by an OHL source. Branch allegedly already put out feelers to those in the industry with influence seeking their aid in crushing the idea before it gets off the ground.
The CHLPA will face formidable foes in the hockey establishment, which will include USA Hockey.
There are millions of dollars at stake in major junior hockey.
Last year’s World Junior Championships in Alberta generated a $22-million profit for Hockey Canada.
The number of tickets sold in the CHL last year totaled 8.1 million.
There are also massive dollars in the revenue streams generated by television rights, other special events like the CHL Prospects’ Game and the just completed Canada-Russia Series, souvenirs and apparel sales, concessions and advertising.
The Memorial Cup tournament is also another cash bonanza.
In all, a battle is shaping up over the percentages of control over tens of millions of dollars and surrendering control of even small amounts of that is not going to be an easy go for the CHLPA.
However, should the CHL and junior hockey’s governing bodies in both countries be reluctant to recognize the CHLPA as the players’ bargaining agent if the group receives certification, Clarke said the union is already prepared legally to overcome that hurdle.
“We have legal representation in every province as well as the Federal Court level in the U.S. to deal with that,” Clarke said.
“We’re really hoping once tabled (the application), the CHL will realize this is the only professional sport, and they are deemed a professional sport, where there’s no players’ association.
“I don’t see a protracted legal battle.”
Though players’ unions have not fared well in the NBA, NFL and NHL in recent years, Clarke said he has no doubts the CHLPA will be more successful.
He said the union has the backing of player agents, a key ally in any battle if true.
Clarke added work stoppages weren’t part of the union’s strategy given the short junior eligibility players have.
“We could do stuff like rotating strikes, but there’s no need for work stoppages,” Clarke said. “That’s not the plan.
“We have other options for leverage in negotiations.”
Though he refused to elaborate, sources say the biggest weapon in the CHLPA bag could be a massive lawsuit over the paltry wages CHL teams have paid players over the years.
The current standard of $50 per week for players hasn’t changed much in 30 years. It’s well under minimum wage levels. The danger is such a lawsuit could be made retroactive resulting in a huge payout.
Ironically, the $50 stipend is something the CHLPA would like to see eliminated.
Clarke calls that ‘contamination money.’
“Everybody in hockey knows the sole purpose of that money is to squash the possibility of receiving an NCAA scholarship,” Clarke said.
“We’d like to get rid of the weekly salary. That’s not a focus.
“We’re not about trying to get players more money per week.”
Clarke said what the focus of the CHLPA will be is to gain improvements in the area of education.
“Our big issue is the players have 12 to 18 months after their last junior game to execute their education packages,” Clark said.
“They play three or four years of junior hockey and their dreams are to play pro hockey. Then at age 20 they have to decide to go to school or pursue a dream. If they do (pursue pro hockey), then they forfeit their education package. There’s no positive in that.
“Why not have some type of assistance program in place for after hockey? That’s what we’re about.”
Clarke said the CHLPA would also like to see the packages extended to players taken further down in the draft and have some of the restrictions taken off what schools players can choose to attend.
The CHLPA will also seek more control for players over the use of their images.
Despite players being tight lipped or saying they don’t know anything about the formation of a union, Clarke said the idea of a union is no secret among the rank and file.
“Every team knows about it,” Clark said. “99.9 per cent of the players on active rosters last year know about it.
“We’ve asked them to keep quiet until we put in our application and made a presentation to the CHL.”
Clarke said the players would pay no union dues.
The CHLPA would be funded entirely from what was negotiated in a CBA with junior hockey’s governing bodies.