Union pushes drive at CHL

Unifor prepares to take its shot at representing major junior hockey players

"People forget that major junior players are kids," said Jamie McKinven. "The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is a big-money business that happens to employ minors."

McKinven, a former professional hockey player who got his start with the Kingston Voyageurs, knows the ins and outs of the league better than most. As Unifor prepares to take its shot at representing major junior hockey players across Canada, he is speaking out and shedding light on life on the ice.

"Picture this: Sending your 15 or 16-year-old son off to a remote city to play hockey for a multi-million dollar corporation in a high-pressure, results-driven world," McKinven said. "It’s a scary thing for a family. They are putting a lot of trust in organizations whose top priority is bottom dollar figures."

Almost 1,700 players across 60 teams are represented by the CHL, the umbrella organization for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).

Two years after a similar attempt to organize CHL players failed to make it off the bench, Unifor is once again making another play.

The union — representing more than 300,00 workers in various industries across the country — plans to create a board of directors and a legal entity to advocate for players it believes are underpaid and exploited by the owners of major junior teams.

"They need a collective voice," said Jerry Dias, Unifor’s national president. "This isn’t the junior hockey of 75 years ago. This is big-time sports now, this is big-time entertainment. The reality is, teams like the London Knights are worth more than some NHL hockey teams."

Dias believes more of that profit should be used in support of players. The majority of major junior players will never "go pro" and more supports need to be put in place for their lives after the league.

Support and insight from former players and their families is informing Unifor’s game plan, according to Dias.

"This is a situation where you’ve got to do a lot of homework first," he said of the union’s efforts. "This is complex. This isn’t like trying to organize a manufacturing facility. This is a situation where you’ve got young men, who, as we’re talking today, don’t know if they’ve made the team or not. So you don’t even know what the bargaining unit looks like. There’s a lot of discussion going on, and to a large extent we’re facilitating it and it’s about time."

And timing could be in the union’s favour. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), based in the U.S., is currently fighting against an organization drive by football players at Northwestern University.

"There is no right to organize student-athletes," said NCAA's chief legal officer Donald Remy in a statement. "Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act… Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."

Additionally, the NCAA is about to go on the offensive against a recent injunction in an antitrust case. The ruling, which came down on Aug. 8, stated the college sports association unreasonably restricted trade by placing limits on how much compensation schools are allowed to offer athletes.

The judge in the case found maintaining "amateurism" is not a legitimate rationale for implementing anti-competitive labour rules. The NCAA announced it plans to appeal the ruling.

Dias hopes recent talks with the Ontario government will lead to a similar analysis of the CHL.

"I think it’s important that the government, if it encounters abuse, takes a stand," Dias said. "I think it’s incumbent on the government to really analyze hockey in Canada. The focus has to be on the young men, it can’t be on the profitability of the teams."

While McKinven agrees organization is necessary for the well-being of both the league and its players, he said Unifor’s focus on profit is misguided.

"I think it’s only a matter of time before the league unionizes," he said. "Without a doubt this can only help players. Right now, players aren’t being properly supported. There isn’t consistency in the way players are treated, and the majority of the mandates outlined for the OHL, WHL and QMJHL are more ‘guidelines’ than regulations."

McKinven said organizational efforts should be focused on education packages and the support of players’ mental health. Arguments over paydays for these players are only distracting from the real issues, he said.

"I don’t think players who are between 15 and 21 are going to benefit from being paid wages. Often, these players will make bad decisions if they are given a lot of money at a young age. I know for a fact, because I did that. As a 19-year-old junior hockey player, I received a weekly stipend – under the table – of $200 and spent most of it on alcohol. I was depressed, didn’t have any support and made bad decisions."

In addition to inadequate supports for mental health, McKinven said the stigma surrounding injuries often prevents players from reporting physical issues. Compounding these problems is a lack of support from home and school as players travel constantly and neglect education in order to focus all of their time and energy on the game.

"I would not let my son play in the CHL with the status quo," McKinven said. "There is too much risk and exploitation and not enough support for education and mental health. There is lots of room for improvement in the CHL and a player’s association can only help to close that gap."

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