CHL players union in the works

CHL Commissioner David Branch presents the Memorial Cup to Michael Bournival of the Shawinigan...

CHL Commissioner David Branch presents the Memorial Cup to Michael Bournival of the Shawinigan Cataractes during the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup game at the Bionest Centre on May 27, 2012 in Shawinigan, Quebec. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images/AFP)

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:51 PM ET

LONDON, ONT. - The idea the world junior hockey tournament or Memorial Cup could, one day, be cancelled because of labour strife isn't quite so far-fetched any more.

A union for Canadian Hockey League players has been in the works for more than a year and could go public by the end of this month, QMI Agency reported Monday.

The topic came up briefly at last week's OHL board of governors meetings in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a league official confirmed.

The group, which calls itself the Canadian Hockey League Players Association, intends to create better representation for major junior players regarding "their rights, education packages and compensation for their use in league branding as well as CHL and Hockey Canada events, particularly the world junior championships."

Consultant Sandra Slater said if a 60% majority of players accept the union, the CHL will have to, by law, recognize it.

"I know nothing other than the speculation and the rumours," CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch said. "The board of governors take the position it would be most inappropriate to respond in any way, shape or form until we have more information."

This isn't the first time a union for junior hockey has been discussed.

The players' official, over-the-table stipend of $50 per week has hardly increased at all over the last 50 years -- Bobby Orr, who now operates a players' agency, was paid the same amount, too, and that was more than 40 years ago -- but this is certainly one of the most appropriate times to wade into the union conversation.

The CHL has become big business operated in many centres by millionaire -- in some cases, billionaire -- owners who have introduced deft, new ways to maximize their revenue streams.

The annual world junior tournament, an incredible money-generating machine for Hockey Canada which last year netted a reported $22 million, is contested with the league's star talent, players who will approach 100 games in one season before getting the chance to pursue a Stanley Cup or sign a multi-million dollar NHL contract.

One of the major attractions for kids to enter the CHL is the chance to play in an environment that blurs the lines between minor hockey and the pros.

Increasingly, they are treated in much the same fashion as their NHL counterparts.

They practise every day and clubs provide access to top-level and specialized coaching, educated athletic therapists, strength trainers and nutritionists.

They are also at risk of being traded and are tested for performance-enhancing drugs.

They get the exposure, just not a larger portion of the bucks.

In fact, attracting players with monetary incentives is against the rules.

The Windsor Spitfires were recently punished to the tune of $400,000 and stripped of valuable future first- and second-round draft picks for unspecified violations under the OHL's player benefit and recruitment policies, a decision the team intends to appeal.

The league instructs its teams not to pay sums of cash to entice talent in an effort to protect competitive balance, but once the player lands there, sells advertising and markets products through them, including lending their names and likenesses for video games.

The players have access to a comprehensive scholarship package run by the league, but not everyone ends up using it and those who spend any significant time in the pros lose that money.

Most players who enter the CHL come equipped with individual agents who negotiate those scholarships and other perks.

But there's never been enough solidarity to form a union. These are still teenagers and, though junior hockey is like a full-time job, this is a group with a much more diverse set of interests than hockey pros.

Several players have already said they've never heard of this new group or the potential to sign union cards, and though the CHLPA could very well have the best of intentions, they have their work cut out for them.

There are several reasons this movement should have legs, but also plenty of doubts it will achieve lift-off.

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/RyanAtLFPress

CHL QUICKFACTS

The Canadian Hockey League is no longer simply an extension of minor hockey. It is closer to the pros than the grassroots of the game.

* Players still receive a weekly stipend in the neighbourhood of $50, though their billets' expenses and schooling costs are covered while they play in the league. Overagers are usually paid more.

* 18 of the 30 players selected in the 2012 NHL draft, including the first five, came from the Canadian Hockey League, which continues to be the leading pipeline to the pros.

* 29 trades were made in the week leading up to the OHL's Jan. 10 deadline last season

* CHL players could be selected to take part in two special in-season league events -- the Subway Canada-Russia Super Series in the fall and the Home Hardware Top Prospects Game in February. Sarnia's Nail Yakupov, picked first overall by Edmonton in June, was suspended for not taking part in Top Prospect activities last season.


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