Some of the mystery behind the organization known as the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association is beginning to lift.
And at least one of those in a key position with the fledgling junior hockey union at one time played a role with the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
Veteran Halifax labour lawyer Ron Pink, who served on the NHLPA’s advisory board until 2009, is functioning in a similar role with the CHLPA as one of three lawyers on a 10-member board that until now hadn’t been revealed publicly.
Like all of the other legal teams and staff working for the CHLPA the past two months, Pink is operating pro bono until the organization can be established as a certified union.
The organization is led by executive director and former NHL player Georges Laraque and claims to have an executive board made up of at least four current CHL players who initially started the process toward unionization in 2011.
“It’s always troubled me,” Pink said. “Some teams can put in 6,000 or 8,000 people in an arena a night and the kids get $50 a week or whatever it is. That’s what they get paid for trying to live the dream.”
Also on the CHLPA’s advisory board are lawyers Denis Bradet and John Bielski as legal reps, former interim executive director Sandra Slater as treasurer, and spokesman Derek Clarke. The revelation of the CHLPA’s advisory board comes one day after the group issued notice to every Ontario Hockey League team that it intends to sue them for failing to pay its players minimum wage.
Laraque said Friday the organization’s main goal is to improve players’ education packages through collective bargaining rather than fight for wages. The CHLPA is applying to become certified as a union in Alberta, something that will be taking place in every province in the near future.
To date, the CHLPA has received a chilly reception from those who run junior hockey at the league and team level, and the CHL responded to the CHLPA’s intention to sue with a strongly worded statement on Friday evening.
“Our 60 clubs operate with the best interest of the players in mind, at all times,” the statement said. “It is estimated the net value, or investment, for each player in the league is between $35,000 to $40,000 annually. This accounts for the education program, and the many other benefits provided by CHL member clubs.
“The CHL vehemently disagrees with the recent allegations made by Georges Laraque on behalf of the CHLPA.”
CHL president David Branch said Friday he asked two months ago, when Laraque and Clarke first requested a meeting, for more information about the organization, including about its constitution and funding, but never heard back.
Both Branch and Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison also took issue with the CHLPA stating the league showed “blatant disregard for the bare minimum working standards that have been set for employees” in its letter to teams.
“To suggest we’re not taking care of our players is entirely contradictory to what we do,” Robison said. “We’re offended by those type of statements and remarks.”
One prominent agent who has worked with the CHL and its players for years has been left scratching his head over how the CHLPA has gone about things.
“I don’t think they’ve called a lot of agents, which seems a natural since some of us have worked with junior players a long time and been their advocates,” said the agent who requested anonymity. “I think there are a couple of considerations, like streamlining scholarships so that all the players eligible for them get what they deserve. But who are they (at the CHLPA)? What’s the deal? It’s kind of a mystery.”
On that front, labour lawyer Sebastien Anderson, who is leading the CHLPA’s certification process in Western Canada, said the secrecy surrounding the group is a necessity given they are attempting to protect players from the blowback associated with forming such a controversial union.
He added that discrediting a group of workers attempting to unionize is a common tactic used by employers.
“The team owners want to find out who’s behind the organizing drive,” Anderson said. “They want to know the individual players. And there’s a reason they want to do that and it’s not good. But in labour law policy across Canada, membership evidence is always treated as confidential.”
“There’s a great fear of retribution by owners against these kids,” Pink said. “But why would anybody criticize the CHLPA here? It’s a simple trade union trying to help workers in an industry.”
Pink and Anderson both said they believe strongly in the proposed union’s case, which is the main reason their firms have agreed to represent the proposed union in the Maritimes and Western Canada.
Pink compared the fight to the attempt to unionize by NHL players like Ted Lindsay more than 50 years ago and believes the court battle could focus on whether junior hockey players qualify as employees as opposed to independent contractors.
“I think their legal position is strong,” Pink said.
The CHLPA also lists SRS Consulting, IXT Consulting, Mark Somner, Sondro Dibonno and Sharon Flemming as members of its advisory board.
The main executive board, which is to be made up primarily of current CHL players, will only be revealed should the certification go through. That process requires going to all 60 CHL teams and certifying them individually, something Anderson said will take a considerable amount of time.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” Anderson said. “And there’s the added dimension that these are 15 to 20-year-olds that don’t have much experience in the workplace and even less knowledge about trade unions. … So far, the players seem very interested.”
With a report from Allan Maki in Calgary