The fight to unionize all 60 major junior hockey teams has begun in earnest.
And it’s starting with an expansion franchise.
A group calling itself the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association confirmed on Tuesday that the majority of the players from the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League have signed membership cards to join the fledgling union.
One report indicated 80 per cent of the players from the new franchise had signed on.
Later in the day, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles – one of at least a handful of other teams believed to be close to joining – issued a statement after receiving a certification application from the CHLPA.
“The Screaming Eagles take our commitment to our players very seriously; that is why we will be actively arguing that the CHLPA is not a recognized union,” the statement said.
“In the coming days, we will continue to speak with our players and their families and ask that before they agree to anything that they do their research into the CHLPA and who is behind it.”
Becoming a recognized union will likely be the integral part of the battle for the association, which is led by former NHL player Georges Laraque. In addition to getting CHL players on board, they also have to convince labour relations boards in every province and the United States that junior players are employees and can form a union.
The CHLPA’s legal team, which is comprised of several firms working pro bono across Canada, has already initiated the certification process in Alberta but must wait until early December to continue.
While players are being encouraged not to talk about the CHLPA in order to avoid drawing too much attention from the owners and staff of their teams, lawyers working on behalf of the union said the interest level in joining is substantial.
The labour laws are different in every province, but generally speaking, the CHLPA will need to get at least 40 per cent of players per team to express an interest in unionizing and the proposed constitution.
“The group of players make that decision,” said Sebastian Anderson, the CHLPA’s legal representative in Western Canada.
“It’s not something someone can do on their behalf,” Anderson added. “Some of these teams have taken two or three meetings with the players. The first time, the players just want the information and to talk to each other and their parents. … Typically there’s at least one more meeting after that.
“We’re not pushing things [in order to move quickly]. Players, if they need to take time or need further explanations, those things are all going to take place. There’s always a fear of going first and fear of the unknown.”
The CHLPA made headlines across the country last week for threatening to sue teams in Ontario and the Maritimes for failing to pay players minimum wage.
Laraque, however, has argued the lawsuits were in response to intimidation from teams and that the organization’s main goal remains to improve players’ education packages.
“This is the leverage they have right now,” he said, adding that he remains hopeful the league will sit down and meet with him and avoid litigation.