The town of Cranbrook in nestled in a scenic corner of south-east British Columbia between the Purcell and Rocky Mountains, a railway town of about 20,000 – home to College of the Rockies, home to the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel and since 1998, also home to the Kootenay Ice.
Kootenay is the junior hockey equivalent of the NHL's Nashville Predators, a small-market team that annually bucks the odds to ice a competitive, exciting team, despite its relative size. Since moving to Cranbrook from Edmonton in 1998, the Ice has won a Memorial Cup (in 2002), three WHL championships, and made the playoffs in 16 consecutive years.
Junior hockey is supposed to be cyclical; the Ice, under long-time general manager Jeff Chynoweth, has managed to stay competitive year after year – in the standings, if not necessarily at the box office.
Altogether, 60 teams in three separate leagues operating across Canada and the northern United States make up the Canadian Hockey League, the primary feeder league to the NHL. About a dozen teams are situated at the top of industry's financial pecking order – Halifax and Quebec in the QMJHL; London and Kitchener in the OHL; Kelowna, Portland and Calgary in the WHL. They are indisputably profitable, money-making operations.
Kootenay operates at the other end of the spectrum. Its arena, the former Cranbrook Recreational Complex (now known as Western Financial Place), opened in 2000 and seats 4,264 for junior hockey.
There is an adjacent swimming pool with a water slide, if the mood strikes. The Ice operates the way junior teams once did – mostly in the small towns of Western Canada, places such as Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert and Prince George, where it can be a day-to-day struggle to make financial ends meet.
With the IIHF's 2015 world under-20 championship under way in Montreal and Toronto, the financial structure of junior hockey – and the revenue discrepancies between its small and large market teams – has come under increasing scrutiny.
Making the case for the junior operators: Ron Robison, the long-time commissioner of the WHL, who says: "For every franchise we have at the top end of the spectrum – the Londons and Halifaxes and Kelownas – we have the Lethbridges and Kootenays and the small-market teams in all of our leagues that are struggling now. We've always described it historically as a third of our teams are profitable; a third of our teams struggle to break even; and a third are in a loss position. In our case now, there are more on the wrong side of the equation than on the right side of it, but the media attention just focuses on the teams that are successful.
"Right now, it balances itself out to a position I would describe as very challenging."
Junior hockey has undergone a major evolution over the past 35 years.
Gone are the days when line brawls were one of its primary selling points; when hazing was a common practice; when junk food was the player's meal of choice; and when players who didn't make it to the NHL were spit out at the end of their careers, many unequipped to handle their futures. Nowadays, junior hockey has – out of necessity and design – fallen in lockstep with the NHL in the way it conducts its business.
On the ice, the emphasis is on speed and skill development, not brawling. The quality of coaching has never been higher – and more than half of current NHL coaches cut their teeth at some point in the junior ranks.
Off the ice, their support programs – from the concussion-management and return-to-play protocols, to the drug-education and personal-conduct seminars – are modelled after similar programs in the NHL. Every team has an educational adviser and once a player completes his junior career, he is eligible to receive a year of tuition, textbooks and fees to a postsecondary institution – be it a university, a college or a trade school – in exchange for every year of service.
The question naturally arises: If the junior leagues are acting so professionally, does that mean their players are in fact professionals – and therefore, should they then be paid as professionals?
Last summer, after a number of previous attempts to organize junior players failed to get off the ground, Unifor, Canada's largest union, (which represents Globe and Mail editorial employees) announced plans to pursue the matter again. In October, a class-action suit seeking $180-million in damages was launched on behalf of players from the three major junior leagues by a Toronto law firm, seeking to recover "back wages, holiday pay, vacation pay and overtime pay" for all eligible players.
Players, past and present, were invited to register online if they wanted to participate in the suit and were promised anonymity by the law firm, which is doing the work on a contingency basis in the hopes of recovering legal fees in the 20-to-30 per cent range, if the suit is ultimately certified by the court and a judgment is rendered in its favour.
Additionally, the Department of Labor and Industries in the state of Washington is conducting an investigation into the four WHL teams based there – in Seattle, Tri-City, Spokane and Everett – to see if minimum-wage laws have been breached. Former player Lukas Walter has launched separate lawsuits against the QMJHL and WHL, arguing that he didn't earn minimum wage during his 160-game junior career.
At the heart of the debate are two primary issues:
One: Should a for-profit operation such as junior hockey be required to pay its players more than the expenses, monthly stipends and scholarship benefits that they currently receive? Two: If that were to occur, what would be the ramifications on junior hockey as a whole?
"Most of us would be out of business," Chynoweth answered. "I for sure would be 100-per-cent out of business."
According to Robison, "The attempts to engage our players are coming from individuals outside our league, not from players or parents. We base our response entirely on the satisfaction levels of our parents and our players – and we believe everybody's satisfied with the current benefit package they're receiving."
Within the past few years, the junior leagues have revised the weekly stipend and replaced it with an expense allocation of $470 a month for players 19 or under, and $900 a month for overage players, according to CHL president David Branch. "We saw, over time, that that was becoming a lightning rod – that these poor kids were only getting X number of dollars a week," said Branch, who argued that the player stipend "is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the compensation they were getting."
Players also receive "expenses, living requirements, education, equipment, but that was the perception – that we were taking advantage of these players, and that's the last thing you want. So a couple of years ago, we repositioned it as an allowance. These are things we have to do a better job of articulating and explaining."
Annually, about 1,300 players play CHL hockey and one of the longest-serving was Michael D'Orazio, who played 320 regular-season games and 40 playoff games over five years for three different junior teams – Owen Sound, London and Mississauga St. Michael's; and now attends St. Mary's University in Halifax, partly on the scholarship money he earned playing junior. D'Orazio saw junior hockey life from both sides – the small-market challenges of Owen Sound compared with the almost NHL-like atmosphere of London – and said the fact that he didn't earn the minimum wage wasn't an issue for him.
"Junior hockey is about developing kids into pro hockey players," said D'Orazio, who is studying commerce at St. Mary's and scheduled to graduate in the spring. "It's not about paying kids, or earning money. It's about going through the experience, and building as a person and a player. It's the best exposure you get to NHL scouts – and that's the ultimate goal. Everyone wants to make it to the NHL. Major junior right now is the best league to do it in Canada."
Michael's parents, Claudio and Liz D'Orazio, spent five years of their lives commuting from the GTA to watch their son play, an experience which Claudio characterized as largely "very positive."
"The billet families, for us, were unbelievable. The kids really get looked after well. Junior hockey is a really competitive business and when Michael first started at Owen Sound, we had all kinds of concerns about leaving him on his own. But Mike Futa was the GM and Mike Stothers was the coach – and he really looked after the kids, almost like a parent, and he wouldn't let the kids get into trouble.
"They really learn some life skills. It's off the charts really – dealing with the pressure of trying to make it; of time management in your first few years when they're in school. Stothers was a stickler for making sure the kids went to class. Otherwise, they'd get suspended – and no one wanted to risk that.
"As parents, the one thing we noticed when Michael came home the first year for Christmas, it's almost as if they grow up too quickly. That first Christmas, after his first three or four months, Michael came home and it was like talking to an adult. They're very respectful and, for the most part, very responsible to each other. That was our experience, at least."
D'Orazio's first year in Owen Sound coincided with Patrick Kane's one and only season playing for the London Knights. Kane is from Buffalo and came through the U.S. National Team Development Program, which generally spins most of its players off on to U.S. college careers. Kane, however, opted to play in the OHL because he saw it as his best personal fit.
Now a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, Kane said the only thing he regrets about his junior hockey experience is it didn't last longer.
"I loved it," Kane said. "Every now and then, they show London games on NHL Network and memories pop back in my head about the time I had there. It was a great experience and I was very, very happy I took that route. I was playing in a city that was like a mini-NHL.
"For a young kid to really develop their skills and get better, I don't think there's anything better. For me, I was a smaller player. Going to college, playing against 25- or 26-year-old men didn't seem like a good idea at my age, 17."
The WHL's answer to London might be Calgary, where the Hitmen share a home with the NHL Flames and play to the largest crowds in the league, year after year. Travis and Taylor Sanheim – fraternal twins, from Elkhorn, Man. – currently play together with the Hitmen, but in all likelihood, face different hockey futures. Last year, Travis Sanheim – who had a tryout for Canada's world junior team – was chosen 17th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the NHL entry draft, and subsequently signed an NHL contract. Taylor Sanheim made the Hitmen this past September, after failing to catch on with the Brandon Wheat Kings the previous year.
The twins live with different billet families in Calgary and while they share the same theoretical goal – becoming the best hockey players they can possibly be – chances are that Travis's odds of forging a lucrative NHL career are better than Taylor's. Still, each believes the WHL experience works for him.
"Every kid's dream is to play in the National Hockey League, so for us, that's the ultimate goal," said Travis, who forfeited his scholarship options when he signed his NHL contract. But he has finished high school and is currently taking a college business course because, "a business course is going to help me no matter what I do – if I go to school or go to the NHL."
Meanwhile, Taylor said he is content to "work to get to the highest level possible – and if that means going overseas to play hockey, or to play university hockey, that's all good. There are long days at the rink sometimes, but you get used to it. And it's great because you're playing the game you love."
Facing a similar small versus large market issue, the NHL's solution two collective agreements ago was to increase revenue sharing. Junior teams share some revenue – from television contracts, world junior and Memorial Cup proceeds – but attempts to get the higher-revenue teams to share box-office revenues with the small-fry teams have been largely unsuccessful.
"It would help not only me, but a lot of the smaller operators," said Chynoweth, who noted that his father, Ed Chynoweth, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category, "tried to get it on the table years ago, but there was quite a bit of fight back the other way. You've got to come up with a formula; so what's the formula? I have two ticket people working for me and Portland has 30. Those types of questions kept coming up."
With so much of the focus on its larger markets, Branch noted that within Canada, 15 of the 60 CHL teams operate in markets under 50,000 and another 15 are under 80,000.
"We are what we are," Branch said. "People always point to the two biggest markets in Ontario, London and Kitchener, and last year, they represented 20 per cent of our total league attendance. That's two teams."
Out west, overall WHL attendance has been largely flat for a number of years now, with 19 out of 22 clubs showing declines in the 2013-14 season.
"Much like other teams across the league, we're missing that 20-to-45 age group," Chynoweth said. "You look at options nowadays. There's high-definition TV, with hockey on every night. There's basketball if you're into basketball and all kinds of other sports. There's Netflix for $7.99 a month. You're competing for that entertainment dollar – and to buy a season-ticket now is a big financial commitment."
After the Ice qualified for the 2011 Memorial Cup by winning the WHL championship, attendance the next season rose to an annual average of 2,805, according to Chynoweth, which is still down from the 3,600 or so they used to get when the team first moved to Cranbrook. This year, the numbers continue to shrink.
"Our attendance right now, through 15 games, is 2,176, so we're down 22.4 per cent in three years," Chynoweth said. "I ask myself, 'What more am I supposed to do?' We don't have a local TV station. We advertise in our local paper. We're on both local radio stations and they do a phenomenal job. You're on social media with your web page and on Twitter.
"People tell me I couldn't market beer to a frat house, but I say to myself, 'What more can I do?' Our players are out in the community. That's never changed. We've won and we've put an entertaining product on the ice and attendance continues to go down."
Chynoweth's son Ryan is playing in his fifth WHL season now, but left home to play triple-A bantam in Lethbridge because there was no triple-A option in Cranbrook.
According to Jeff Chynoweth, "this is what I say when I hear about paying minimum wage to junior hockey players: My son went to live with a family when he played bantam. We had to pay room and board; we had to pay monthly dues and his living expenses. Those hockey academies, you're paying $25,000 per year and that might not include room and board.
"You come to the Western Hockey League and you don't pay for skates, for sticks, for equipment, you don't pay dues, and you get spending money. You bus. You stay in hotels. You get meals. Everything is looked after. It's not that bad. I'm sick and tired of the attacks on junior hockey. Sure, there are always things you can improve on, but I have a boy who plays in this league and when he gets done, he has five years of education in the bank.
"This year, I could have between 17 and 19 guys in postsecondary education, the most we've ever had. Add that up – that's over six figures; and most of that is funded off the bottom line. We're looking at a six-figure deficit this year, a significant six-figure deficit.
"I make no bones about it. I've lived here since 1998. I love coming to work and I love junior hockey – but I've been in the league for 29 years in a lot of different markets and have seen the game change and I'll tell you this: When your expenses continue to rise and your revenue is flat, that is not a good mix."
Ultimately, no institution the size of the CHL is going to satisfy the needs of every player all the time, so the question was put to one of them – D'Orazio, who was the eighth overall pick in the OHL's 2006 bantam draft and played on the same Canadian world under-18 team as Steven Stamkos, Alex Pietrangelo and Nazem Kadri.
Even though junior hockey didn't funnel him immediately to the NHL the way it did some of his peers, D'Orazio was asked, given what he knows now, would he follow the same path again?
"A lot of people have asked me that – if you could go back in time, would you go to college in the States?" he answered, "and my answer is: No. I wouldn't trade my five years of playing junior for anything. They were some of the best years of my life.
"I learned so much so quickly; met a lot of good people who are lifelong friends and got to play a good level of hockey in front of a lot of people at a young age – it made you feel like a rock star at times. Looking back now, with not a worry in the world, playing in a professional atmosphere, it was just so much fun."