The Canadian Hockey League Players' Association (CHLPA) has launched the legal equivalent of a precision-guided drone into the rear echelon of Canadian junior hockey. That world is inhabited by the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and Hockey Canada (HC).
Both behemoths of the Canadian hockey community have received demand letters from the CHLPA's legal counsel.
The list of items is extensive, expensive and it is obvious the CHLPA intends to come out of the legal corner with the puck.
From interpreting provincial labour laws (cited in the letters to the CHL and HC) which are being applied to define the relationship that exists between the 1405 players and their 60 teams, it is clear that players are employees and are owed a substantial amount of back pay, easily in the 10's of millions.
"There has been, and continues to be, flagrant breaches of the Employment Standards Act (Ontario), the Canada Pension Plan and the Employment Insurance Act," the letter states and demands players are treated according to employment and labour acts standards.
Grievance outlined by the CHLPA include not paying the players at least the prescribed minimum wage, at least one and one-halftimes the prescribed minimum rate for each hour of work in excess of 44 hours in each work week, and not paying players public holiday pay.
Specifically addressed in the letters are David Branch, 63 -- the only Commissioner of the OHL since its inception in 1974 and President of the Canadian Hockey League since 1996, and Bob Nicholson, 59, the President and CEO of Hockey Canada since 1998 and recently appointed as Vice President of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Every team in the CHL was sent the letter, including each team owner.
The CHLPA's governing body released a statement today to media and public, stating "The CHLPA is pleased that the players executive board has voted to act on the numerous and decade-long violations that the CHL unlawfully withheld payments to players for their services on and off the ice as employees.
"For years the CHL and its owners, along with Hockey Canada, the self-imposed governing
body of hockey in Canada, has turned a blind eye to this violation of the employment standards act."
Hockey Canada officials were contacted for their response. "No comment", said Andre Brin, their spokesperson.
Brin then proceeded to suggest I was being rude, although I had numerous conversations with his staff that were all brief and uneventful. A personal attack as a result of requesting sensitive info from Fortress Puck is common when investigating highly controversial subjects, as commonplace as a bodycheck in hockey.
"We hereby demand the OHL and Teams to forthwith comply with the legislative working conditions in Ontario. In the event that these ongoing violations are not immediately rectified, please be advised that we intend to commence legal proceedings."
In hockey, this has significant repercussions for all involved at the major junior, or junior A tier 1 level, the last stage before being drafted and possibly playing in the National Hockey League.
CHL Players lace up for 68 to 72 games during their regular season. Exhibition games and playoffs can easily add another 20-30 games to their year. Seasons start in late August and run continuously until May, when the Memorial Cup, the premier CHL tournament, is played.
During this period, players are training daily and on the ice six and sometimes seven days a
week. The travel schedule is intense for every team and especially so in the Western Hockey League (WHL), where distances take players as far north as Prince George, B.C. and Prince Albert, Sask., as far west as Victoria, B.C. and Portland, OR, and as far east as Brandon, Man.
Players receive a $50 a week stipend on average. They are provided with equipment, a billet, access to training facilities and transportation to games. They must use their education fund within 12-18 months of their last CHL game. Players forfeit their American college system NCAA eligibility.
Hockey Canada looks at CHL players as amateurs. The 1405 CHL players, of 620,000 registered players in Canada, are the only players to play for commercial franchises providing to entertainment fans what the CHL markets as a professionally operated consumer product.
I also spoke with Kelly Kisio of the Calgary Hitmen. He was polite in declining any comment and repeatedly referred me to the WHL head office and WHL Commissioner Ron Robison. Kisio was very hesitant to comment on anything, to the point where even a basic question on the team's performance was a struggle for him, as if orders had been given to a soldier. Intimidation by rank permeated our conversation.
Intimidation is an unfortunate reality in junior hockey.
Anyone who's been involved on-ice or in the bowels of a junior organization can testify to the authenticity of such a statement.
Junior hockey is at times more military than the military. I know, I served with a Canadian infantry regiment for 4 years and coached hockey for 30 years. I've witnessed the eery similarities between the two approaches to the development our youth.
Junior players are Canada's on-ice army, winter warfare experts involved in almost daily skirmishes with enemy forces. But the life expectancy, to extend the metaphor, is atrocious in hockey, with 98% of players exiting the game at the end of their puck career.
An attrition rate like that, and at such a high cost, begs more insight into the psychology of the player and the social constructs that apply to such a situation.
Sixty-three per cent of Alberta-based CHL teams have rostered players that are legally recognized as adults, 18 and older. What makes an adult commit so intensely for a dream that they will do it for 1/300th or even less, of his market value. That's like a $300/hr lawyer working for $1.00/hour.
Hockey is a pay to play system and junior hockey is the transitional transect in the hockey-as-revenue world. But something is starting to look a lot like Kamp Krusty, and yes, without hyperbole, this is a thousand times worse than Vietnam.