The fledgling Canadian Hockey League Players Association has been mocked, ridiculed and marginalized since its existence became known in August.
But the one thing the CHLPA hasn't been is silenced -- particularly on its hard stance to get players better education funding.
Granted, the organization that purports to have support from players on every team in the Canadian Hockey League -- despite being little more than a shadowy presence with an amateurish website, a Twitter account and a high-profile front-man, former NHL tough guy Georges Laraque its only assets -- has left itself open to criticism and skepticism.
Beyond that, however, the CHLPA has managed to focus the spotlight on issues affecting the more than 1,300 players in the three leagues that make up the CHL -- the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- that previously have been ignored. And that has led to questions being asked about whether players receive a big enough piece of the pie from the business of junior hockey.
Most of the questions centre around player benefits, particularly the education packages the CHLPA believes have too many restrictions and often force young men to choose between attending a post-secondary institution or trying to make a career out of professional hockey.
CHLPA spokesman Derek Clarke says players essentially are sold on junior hockey as "a fast-track to the National Hockey League," which is at odds with maximizing the dollars teams have promised for post-CHL schooling.
"The core issue is obviously education," Clarke said. "(Team owners) are looking at it as a business and the players are looking at it as a stepping stone to get to somewhere. The owners are dangling a future of (both) the National Hockey League and an education in front of them.
"So let's ante up the education part. We're not after salaries, but they need to do something (more) for the education."
The CHLPA would like to see the leagues and owners sweeten the pot when it comes to the education of graduating players, many of whom have spent four or five years dedicating their lives to hockey. It believes owners put their own financial interests ahead of the players' education, putting restrictions on the educational packages that often lead to them being voided.
Players must begin using their scholarships within 18 months of graduating from the CHL. Signing a professional contract -- either the NHL or AHL -- voids the education package completely.
But both restrictions were put into place after consultation with a focus group made up of players' parents, according to OHL commissioner (and CHL president) David Branch, who says his league's scholarship program is the best of its kind in North America.
"Quite frankly, feedback we've received is that parents in particular value the 18-month rule because it really forces the hand of their son to make a decision," Branch said. "The concern is, the longer you're out of school, the less likelihood that you will return to school. It gives the player the opportunity to dip his finger into the professional ranks and if in fact, after 18 months, he doesn't see his goal being easily attained on the ice, he can return on the scholarship program.
"Over the years our scholarship program has grown and evolved ... in terms of the benefits provided to our student athletes. It has become extremely adaptable, as it should be, to meet and serve the best needs of the people who wish to call upon it."
Former Vancouver Giants forward J.D. Watt, who also played for the Red Deer Rebels and Regina Pats during his four-year WHL career, never got the opportunity to use his scholarship money despite failing to get into a regular-season NHL game. A fourth-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2005, Watt bounced around the minor leagues for just four years, skating for seven teams in the AHL or ECHL, before returning to school in Calgary this year.
And he's doing it on his own dime because he's coming back to the school party 2 1/2 years too late.
"I think it's a big issue," Watt said. "If a kid plays five years in the Western Hockey League, he should be entitled to an education whether he goes and plays a couple of years of pro or not. I think you have to let these guys at 20 years old have a run at things. They spent five years in the WHL developing to be an NHLer.
"If they don't get that shot because they want to get that schooling money, I don't think that's fair at all."
Serge Payer, who spent five seasons with the Kitchener Rangers from 1995 to 2000 and played 124 NHL games after signing as a free agent with the Florida Panthers, said he can remember talking about some of the issues the CHLPA has raised with his junior teammates more than 15 years ago.
"Even back in the mid-1990s when I played the game, guys would bring it up in the room and on road trips," said Payer, now a player agent with Unlimited Sports Management after retiring from hockey in 2011. "It's one thing to bring it up and another thing to be proactive about it. We can sit here and talk about what (junior players) are entitled to for the next year. What is a fair amount?
"A lot of players, yeah, they do turn pro but they don't play a long time. A minor-league career is significantly unlike an NHL career.
"Every player would like to see more player benefits, post-hockey. The players who play three, four, five years at the CHL level, if there is a way to reward guys more, why not?"
It's a valid question, Clarke says, and one the CHLPA wants answers to.
"The Western Hockey League has the best (education) package," he said. "It's still not reflective of the revenue that comes in. Let's put this into perspective here. In 19 years, they've spent $11 million. When you put that number up there it sounds great but when you think about 22 teams over 19 years, that's less than $30,000 a team (each year) for a league that brought in close to $70 million in ticket sales last year.
"That $30,000 is still less than what their stick budget would be. There's something wrong when you're OK paying for sticks and you can't pay for education."
Branch said the OHL has opted to put money into programs that benefit players in other ways, programs that aren't quantifiable but go hand-in-hand with developing young men for a future outside hockey.
"We can reasonably present that the players benefit anywhere from $35,000 to $40,000 annually," he said. "And that's not taking a team budget and dividing it by 'X' number of players, it's direct programs that we feel are there to protect and support the development of the player."
Branch said he doesn't take offence when people say the leagues don't have the best interests of the players at heart.
"(But) nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "It's always good, no matter who it is or what you're talking about, to be critiqued. I mean, hey, that's how you learn. That's how you continue to challenge yourself on how you can do things better for the game, for the players."
Branch, considered one of the most progressive-thinking men in hockey for taking a stand against on-ice issues such as fighting, concussions and performance-enhancing drugs, admitted that the league's scholarship program might need to be "tweaked" at some point but "we have nothing really on the table right now."
That's fine with Barrie Colts captain Ryan O'Connor, an overager playing in his fifth OHL season. The 20-year-old from Hamilton, undrafted by an NHL team and uncertain about his hockey future, is a prime candidate to cash in his scholarship when the season ends.
"I'm happy with the way things are," O'Connor said. "My education package is really good and I get the overage pay, which is pretty nice. The pay we get isn't exactly the best but then again it's a feeding program for the NHL. We're here to learn and develop, not make those big bucks. It would be nice to get that big money but we're in a development program. Once you make it (to the NHL), that's when the big bucks come.
"It's the best league in Canada. It's a development program and guys know that. It's a privilege to play in the OHL."
TAKING THE CHL TO SCHOOL
School money -- not ice time nor draft rankings -- is the primary reason for the formation of the Canadian Hockey League Players Association.
But what exactly are education packages and how do they work? And why is this issue at the core of the CHLPA's fight with the CHL?
Well, it's simple but, at the same time, more than a little complicated.
Junior hockey players receive scholarship money -- otherwise known as education packages -- from the team they sign with after the draft. Generally, teams will pay for one year of a player's university or college education after his CHL career ends for every year of service in the league.
There are, however, differences between what each of the three CHL leagues offer to players.
In the OHL, first-round draft picks receive "full-ride" packages, which include the costs of books, tuition and room and board, while all other players get a minimum of tuition and books paid for by the team. Seven players on each team can receive "full-ride" packages, allowing teams the ability to negotiate in the hopes of enticing the league's high-end recruits who might be considering the NCAA ranks.
The WHL, on the other hand, has standardized education packages that cover a year of school (tuition and books) for every year in the league. First-round picks get the same as 10th-rounders.
Players in the QMJHL receive a maximum grant of $5,000 a year for no more than four years. Although the wording is different, players essentially get the same one-for-one deal as players in the other two leagues.
But there are two constants among the OHL, WHL and QMJHL education packages and both are essentially out-clauses. Players must begin using their scholarship money within 18 months of graduating from junior and the package becomes voided when a player signs a pro contract with an NHL or AHL team.
"The first issue with us is the 18-month restriction policy," Clarke said. "We don't feel it's fair that a player works three or four years in the league then has to make another decision. Do I choose education or do I try to pursue a dream? And if I pursue the dream, I lose what I've worked for. I don't know of any other business that operates like that. They've earned that money.
"One of the key issues is not only the removal of the time frame but also the ability, if a player signs a pro contract, to have him utilize his education package."