A junior hockey union makes sense

21/08/2012 § 4 Comments

Coming not long on the heels of the news that the Windsor Spitfires have been punished for breaking recruiting rules comes word that noted social justice crusader and labour lawyer Georges Laraque is leading a ‘players union’ for junior hockey players.

Major Junior hockey teams have massive financial reasons in front of them for wanting to have the best players playing for them and, indeed, receive compensation for having those players.

For starters, did you know that for every 1st round pick selected from their team, junior clubs receive at least $200,000?

Junior hockey teams use and abuse young athletes, luring them with the dream of one day making millions in the NHL, all while lining the pockets of their owners. Teams don’t play their players much, but they do generate millions in revenue for their teams.

So why do we tolerate it? Because we still believe in the notion of kids playing ‘for the love of the game’. They may love playing the game, but let’s be honest, every single kid in junior hockey is doing it TO GET PAID. They accept almost non-existent wages because they’ve been told ‘that’s how it is.’

Jensen’s dilemma

Interestingly enough, the Canucks were faced with an interesting dilemma this summer. What if Nik Jensen doesn’t make the team this season? Is it really logical to send him back to junior? He’d already shown last spring that he belongs in professional hockey, but the rules say he can only play in the NHL or in the CHL. So what is the solution? He was allowed to sign a conditional contract with AIK, which would kick in if he were not to make the Canucks next fall.

The AHL/CHL agreement keeps junior eligible players out of the NHL’s ostensible ‘development’ league, even if that player clearly has nothing left to gain from playing against 16 year-olds. It’s pretty clear why the CHL teams would want to get their drafted players back – it helps them sell tickets.

Jensen has an entry-level contract with the Canucks ready to kick in, but he wouldn’t necessarily collect it if he stayed in North America. He has an advantage over other players his age – he’s European. So he has a choice in making money, but his Canadian and American colleagues don’t? How does that make sense?

You’re going to have a hard time convincing me teams that are sold for millions of dollars – and of which there are now 60 – are not highly profitable. CHL owners may pump up the development, playing with heart, love of the game, ‘real hockey’ angle as much as they want, but they are in it for one reason. Money.

So few make it, but we destroy their education

Junior players make great sacrifices in chasing their dream. Although a good number of them may not be the greatest students in the world, a high school education still means a lot. Many barely complete high school. They are putting a far-off, extremely unlikely dream, ahead of pursuing a trade, or a degree. They are left, after choosing the major junior route, with very few options should they not make the NHL. Some choose to carry on playing pro hockey, hoping to find a job in one of North America’s lower-level minor leagues, a few are able to go to Europe. But most are left with not much.

What’s worse, is that many are sold a bill of goods about how the league will pay for their education. That is true, the WHL does guarantee a year of tuition for each year the player was in the league, but the player must start to collect his money within 12 months of finishing his junior career. This is a near-impossibility for most Major Junior ‘graduates’.

The players may have skills on the ice, but they certainly are lacking in life skills. The hockey world is filled with stories of how poorly equipped players are to deal with life after hockey. Most stories are about guys who played the game for years and years. What about the guys who didn’t progress much past junior? The world is a big challenge, and there’s no much to support a player who finishes playing hockey but didn’t do the work in high school that would allow him to progress to a post-secondary institution.

Most players who play CIS hockey in Canada are not 21-year-olds, right out of junior. They tend to be guys in their mid-20s, who played a few years of minor pro, and somehow, either in high school or on their own time, pulled together enough credits to get there.

This is child labour and it’s abusive

Junior hockey abuses children. It’s that simple. Why shouldn’t Nik Jensen be paid for his services in one place, when he’ll get paid for his services in another? Junior hockey is a huge commitment for any young athlete. He is asked to set aside any educational ambitions he might have and instead dedicate himself to the local team, and with them chase a dream of playing in the show.

You’d think that not paying players who are earning their owners money would be against the law, wouldn’t you?

This is where the idea that Major Junior teams are paying players under the table to not play NCAA hockey becomes ever more ludicrous. These young prospects are being given a good sum of money to forgo their long term, realistic ambitions in favour of an extremely-high-risk, high-reward premise. Young players very often don’t have a full understanding of their choice: that’s why websites like this and this exist.

So what’s the solution? Pretty simple. Junior hockey owners would hate it, but it’s time to start paying these kids. We know that teams throw under-the-table cash at players all the time, let’s bring it out in the open. Second, if Nik Jensen is old enough to be paid in Europe, he’s old enough to get paid in North America. Lets get rid of the ridiculous prohibition against 19-year-olds playing in the AHL.

Are fans all of a sudden going to stop going to junior games? I think not. The game will still be outstanding. Yes, some players will no longer be around, but that’s an opportunity for younger stars to shine, and realisitically, most players would still be sent to junior because they physically wouldn’t be ready to play professional hockey.

Junior hockey’s control on the livelihoods of young hockey players has gone on for too long. It’s time for it to stop.

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§ 4 Responses to A junior hockey union makes sense

  • mclea says:

    “Junior hockey abuses children. It’s that simple. Why shouldn’t Nik Jensen be paid for his services in one place, when he’ll get paid for his services in another? Junior hockey is a huge commitment for any young athlete. He is asked to set aside any educational ambitions he might have and instead dedicate himself to the local team, and with them chase a dream of playing in the show.”

    Child abuse? Major junior hockey players are the high status alpha males of every high school in Canada. And what about athletes that commit a similar amount of their youth to non-revenue generating sports? Are they abused as well?

    And your “setting aside any educational ambitions” comment is bullshit. Downtown Calgary and Edmonton are littered with old WHL players. My dad played in the WHL and he’s been a lawyer for 40 years.

    I think a union is a good idea for all the obvious reasons, but you really went off the deep end with this post. Child abuse. Jesus Christ.

    • pericos says:

      First of all, thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      How is telling a teenager that he shouldn’t be paid while making his owner millions *not* abusive? There’s a power disparity between the player and the owner. “Just because that’s how it’s always been” is not an acceptable reason for that player to accept the status quo. The junior team, in the player (and his family’s) mind holds all the power, especially if he doesn’t see himself as academically inclined.

      2nd, your dad is a great example of someone who succeeded despite the structure – there are plenty of other guys who weren’t as fortunate as he was. Your dad has brains of a sort most junior players don’t possess.

      I didn’t say junior hockey abuses all its players, but it does abuse a great many.

      How many of those junior hockey alpha males remain alphas once their career is done?

  • Buddy says:

    I don’t understand why the CHL even exists, other than there is a market for it. Couldn’t we put more emphasis on high school hockey (none of my high schools in two provinces had hockey teams) and Canadian university hockey – i.e., the way basketball and other sports work? Regulate the CHL out of existence, put the revenue into high schools and unis – the kids get an education while they play. Just spitballing but more and more players seem to be taking that route anyway, but the US seems to be the only realistic option for a talented young player who wants an education as well.

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