Canadian junior hockey is on the brink of being unionized.
The Canadian Hockey League Players Association, which organizers say will represent the interests of the country’s 1,500 major junior A players, has been in the planning stages for 14 months and is about to go public.
“I can tell you we have representatives from all 60 teams, we have a board of directors from the players,” Derek Clarke, who identified himself as a spokesperson for the fledgling organization, said during a telephone interview on Monday night.
“We have a bargaining committee which consists of 35 players and a treasurer,” he added.
“And we also have an interim advisory board in place and an interim executive director who was voted in until a full-time person is named.”
Clarke said that a full-time executive director could be named as early as Tuesday, which is when the organization will outline its plans to try to certify itself both in Canada and the United States.
The CHLPA said it hopes to provide better representation for the players, especially when it comes to education, in their dealings with the Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada.
The CHL is an umbrella organization that represents the three Canadian-based major junior leagues for players 16 to 20.
The three leagues are the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
Hockey Canada is the game’s governing body. It draws from the junior ranks to ice teams for such lucrative global tournaments as the annual world junior championship each Christmas.
Clarke said the CHLPA already has in excess of 60-per-cent support from the CHL players, more than enough to make union applications to labour boards in the applicable provinces across Canada and in the United States, where eight of the CHL’s 60 franchises are located.
“If you talk to player agents and the players, this has been long, long overdue. Decades maybe,” Clarke said.
Details of the formation of the new union have, until recently, been shrouded in secrecy before word started to leak out late last week.
Dave Branch, the CHL president and commissioner of the OHL, did not respond to a telephone message on Monday.
In a story published Sunday in the Peterborough Examiner, Branch said it would be “inappropriate” for the board to respond to a matter about which they have no information.
Mark Geiger, a labour lawyer at Blaney McMurtry in Toronto, said from a jurisdictional standpoint, the formation of a new union would be difficult.
“I’m not sure that the players are employees within the meaning of the Labour Relations Act,” he said. “They don’t get a salary, they get a stipend, but it’s not even remotely close to the minimums under the Employment Standards Act.”
While the CHLPA says it has support from a majority of the players, the news of its existence remains unknown to some junior hockey people. According to the parent of one junior-aged player from Quebec: “From what I can tell, there’s no talk about [unionization].”
Gilles Lupien, a former Montreal Canadiens defenceman who is now a player agent, supports the new organization. Lupien, who has long been critical of how junior hockey in Canada is organized and run, said he has been acting as an unofficial consultant to the union’s hierarchy.
“It’s not just about the money,” Lupien said. “It’s a question of how the leagues are treating the kids, their education and all the travel that’s involved. I’ve been screaming about this for years and years.
“Junior hockey is big business.”
One of the union’s stated goals is to help develop a more equitable education package for the players, something that Clarke touched upon.
“There’s too many restrictions with it,” he said. “If a player does not use his education package within the first 18 months after leaving the league, he loses it. Which to me, if you’ve worked four years at something, and you still wanted to pursue your dream – whether that be playing pro or semi-pro hockey, or over in Europe and competing – why would you have to forfeit an education package?”