The fledgling Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association is lying on death’s door, and many of the legal minds who had been fighting on its behalf have checked out.
On their way out, however, those involved all remained adamant on Friday that a union for junior hockey players is a cause they believe in.
Ron Pink, a respected labour lawyer in Halifax who had accepted the CHLPA’s case because he considered executive director Georges Laraque a friend, lamented the fact that the hard work of many went up in smoke as a result of the possible behind-the-scenes involvement of disgraced former hockey coach Randy Gumbley.
“This is a colossal shame,” Pink said. “It will probably have an impact for many years to come because the CHL will take strength from this. But Georges had his heart in the right place and his vision is absolutely correct. His principles are correct.”
Principles or not, the CHLPA is even in a best-case scenario currently on life support. While Gumbley’s role in all this continues to remain unclear, his brother, Glenn, was actively involved and even emerged on Twitter on Friday calling himself the founder of the CHLPA.
Some of the controversy surrounding the group is of his doing, as in a bid to conceal his identity, Glenn Gumbley had been using another volunteer’s name (Derek Clarke) to make outrageous statements and act as a spokesman for the organization.
The combined effect of Randy Gumbley’s questionable background – he has a previous conviction for fraud and would have potentially violated his probation if he was involved with the CHLPA – and Glenn Gumbley’s use of an alias raised enough red flags that every legal team associated with the group dropped out.
The union meetings scheduled in Nova Scotia on Friday were cancelled, as was a filing by former Halifax Mooseheads player Josh Desmond alleging he wasn’t paid minimum wage during his time with the team.
CHL president David Branch said the end result of all that went on was the organization lacked any legitimacy to represent its 1,300 or so players.
“I can’t imagine how they could [have any] quite frankly,” he said, “if you consider the various elements that occurred over the past several weeks.”
Pink, who at one point was on the advisory board of the NHLPA during a turbulent time in its membership, attributed the CHLPA’s implosion to the difficulty of the task and the lack of financial reward involved.
He credited Laraque for putting some of his own money into the endeavour and hopes “a legitimate union with experience” comes in at some point to carry the torch.
“Most of these kids are sacrificing their education, in high school, to play in major-junior hockey,” Pink said, calling his meetings with players and parents during his time with the CHLPA eye-opening. “The vast major are being used to live a dream, and the dream is not a reality. Hockey is a huge business. It’s all about making money for the owners.
“There’s a cancer in hockey in Canada. The underbelly of hockey is very negative if you peel it back. There’s something really wrong with hockey the way it’s operated as a money-making sport. ... The exploitation of these kids is unbelievable.
“Frankly I don’t know what we can do about it.”
Several former CHL players contacted by The Globe and Mail on Friday also said they had supported the union drive and were sorry to see it implode almost as quickly as it was formed back in August.
“To be honest, I was excited when I found out the CHLPA was on the radar and that people were organizing it,” said John Wires, a defenceman with the Owen Sound Attack in 2003-04 who now works at a downtown Toronto law firm. “It’s a shame that the wrong people were behind it. They have the right idea; they just didn’t have the execution or the right people involved.”
For his part, Branch said the league wasn’t ruling out the possibility of further improvements to its education fund, which was the prime target of criticism by Laraque and Co.because of its short expiration date.
CHL players are given 18 months after their playing careers finish to receive a scholarship that equals a year of tuition for each season they spent in the league.
“We’ve done a lot over the years to build up and develop programs for our players,” Branch said. “We don’t think a third party can do it any better ...
“We’ll continue to challenge ourselves on how we can best serve the players’ needs,” he added. “We listen to players, we listen to their parents and we listen to experts in the [education] field as well.”