Tuesday, September 4, 2012

CHLPA Still A Big Mystery

“Within 10 days everything will come to light,” - Sandra Slater, CHLPA on August 20th.

The Canadian Hockey League Players Association has made a lot of noise over the last few weeks but very little is still known about who they are, what they want and how they hope to achieve their goals. 

It's also still unclear whether a CHLPA is actually needed or even supported by the players in the CHL.

Despite the declaration quoted above, 16 days later we're still left with more questions than we have answers.

The CHLPA first made news last month in the Peterborough Examiner when spokesperson Sandra Slater was quoted extensively by reporter Mike Davies. Slater, the owner and manager of SRS Consulting, is described as being a "Consultant" for the CHLPA although I do not know how her background in "High Tech Laboratories" translates to hockey. I don't know what role she plays within the CHLPA or if she is still with the CHLPA at all. 

"I don't know"... that's the answer you hear quite often when the question involves the CHLPA.

Dave Wadell's story the next day featured several quotes from Derek Clarke, another CHLPA spokesman.     

Clarke said a board of directors has been selected, a constitution ratified, a bargaining committee has been formed, regional directors are in place and an executive director should be announced as early as the end of the week.
Clarke said no player agents will be allowed to serve as executive director or on the executive board.
He added that the CHLPA already has player representatives for all 60 CHL teams.
While the rest of the CHLPA's structure is still unknown, the Executive Director was in fact named as promised - Georges Laraque, the former NHL enforcer who spent most of his career with the Edmonton Oilers. 

Georges Laraque
Laraque was immediately sought after for comment from various media outlets including The Pipeline Show. While the CHLPA website is still under construction, I was able to make some semblance of contact via Twitter and was directed to a vague email address for making interview requests. 

To date, no emails I have sent to the CHLPA inviting Laraque or anyone else from the CHLPA, have been returned. I have since told the CHLPA, (or at least the email address I was given), that they have an open invitation to appear on the show whenever they are prepared to answer some questions.   

Since no one from the CHLPA has come on the show to present their side of the debate, guests on TPS over the last few weeks to discuss the subject have been fellow members of the media, players, a key player agent and a couple CHL General Managers. 

Mike Farwell, respected OHL analyst and morning radio host on Sportsnet 590 The Fan joined Dean and I on August 21st:
"What’s surprised me more than anything is the way it’s being done. It’s the top-down approach where it doesn’t seem like there are many, if any, players that really knew much about it. But there is some sort of entity that is organizing from an executive director and a board of directors level and pushing it down to the league as opposed to what you would traditionally see with a union where the employees, or in this case the players, from a grass roots level get together to organize in a labour situation."      
Rick Vallette
On the same show we spoke with player rep Rick Valette who represents 2011 1st overall selection Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and 2012 2nd overall pick Ryan Murray among many others. The Octagon Hockey rep seemed like someone who would be one of the first a CHLPA would contact considering his impressive list of clients. That doesn't appear to be the case
"I’d like to tell you that I know a lot but frankly I don’t and they haven’t contacted me at all. The only information I have is what I have read on my Twitter account or on the internet where people have sent me random articles. I’m curious as to what details will come out over the next few days about what the objectives and the goals are and who is behind it and where we’re going with that. I have way more questions than I have answers."
Dean asked Valette if he, as an agent, saw a need for a union.
"That’s a tough question for me. Let’s look at it this way, Major Junior hockey across the country is a business and I think we all understand that, and we understand what happens to franchise values. But I look at junior hockey as a development league and I don’t look at it as a money maker for clients."
"My view is that if we’re looking at it as “Gee, I think the kids should get a little more stipend” or whatever it is... I don’t really know why we would do that. I think that major junior operators are there to develop kids for the NHL and other pro leagues around the world and the kids that choose not to or are unable to play pro, they get an education package out of it which has been enhanced [over the years]."
We asked Valette about the comments made by Derek Clarke who claimed that player representatives for all 60 CHL teams were already in place and that "We already have enough (60 per cent or more of all players) signed up to seek a labour application".
"I represent a lot of players in Major Junior hockey here in the west, a lot of very good players, and not one of those players had heard of this... don’t you find that strange?"
Indeed, I do find it strange. In fact I find it impossible to believe that, in the Twitter-age, some 1300 players, 16-20 year olds, would be able to keep a tighter lid on news of an upstart union than they can spoilers for Batman Rises
"All the players seem to be in the dark about this, a lot of CHL managers seem to be in the dark about this and the really strange thing for me is that I’ve spoken to a number of agents who really don’t seem to know what’s going on either which for me, I would think that those are the people that would be contacted first but that doesn’t seem to be the case." 
My own efforts to find anyone with inside knowledge of the CHLPA was similarly fruitless to Sunaya's. I asked WHL team executives, players, media guys across the CHL... no one knew anything about a CHLPA, if it actually existed or who would be behind it. 

One 19-year-old player joked that "Personally, I don't believe any player in the CHL is smart enough or has the ability to form a union so I'm going with 'No', it's not real".
But as we found out on the August 25th edition of The Pipeline Show, it wasn't just current CHL players who were behind this but guys who had already gone through the league. Our friend Allan Bristowe from PGTV in Prince George was the first to get on the record comments from Georges Laraque which we played on the air for our audience.  Laraque commented on why CHL players all seemed to be in the dark about the union.
"The union started with current and former players, they’re the ones that started the process 14 months ago, because there is a need for it. Once the process works after that the players and the teams they get contacted but you can’t contact the players in the summer, you have to contact all the teams at once. It’s impossible to see a guy there and there and there. You see every team, you talk about what you want to do and then you get the support of the players because at the end of the day it’s not going to cost the players anything."  
So, as Mike Farwell accurately described, this isn't a a union really being formed by the players at all but rather from the outside and down to the players. Or as Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelly wrote:
"The players didn’t ask for it. Now that it’s here, no one wants to endorse it. Although the CHLPA claims this idea has been months in coming, exceedingly few players appear to have heard of it before it hit the news cycle this week.

It turns out the CHLPA is that rarest of cultural fetishes — a conspiracy that kept its own secret.

Cobbling this thing together behind the scenes makes a strange sort of sense. In order for it to be built, it always had to be built from the top down.

Then again, anybody who knows their history will recall that all top-down social movements have one set of interests in mind: their own.

Many of the problems the CHLPA proposes to solve (i.e. team switches, missed school, etc.) either aren’t problems to begin with or are insoluble.

A leaked copy of the document presented to the players who have been filled in is heavy on Jimmy Hoffa-esque rhetoric and light on details.

This doesn’t sound fly-by-night, only because it doesn’t seem capable of getting off the ground in the first place.

One of the many things you cannot trust in life is a charity that no one asked to be created. That’s what the CHLPA amounts to."
Still, one has to assume Georges Laraque isn't going to get involved with some shady band of misfits. He certainly spoke with passion and genuinely seems to want to help those players who need help after hockey. 
"The WHL makes over $250 Million a year so we’re talking about managing some of that profit to give back to the players. 
It’s not like the NHLPA where the players would have to fund their own union, it doesn’t cost them anything, it will just be a service for them for free, a service that will help them throughout their career, throughout their struggle and all the things that they have to go through. And it will be composed of former guys that played in junior that knows the struggle and the intensity that it takes and they’ll be able to talk to those guys and help them out through their problems."
So, outside of the obvious error about WHL profits, we got a little more information on who will be involved but no names. Laraque also reiterated his explanation of why current players apparently know nothing about the union.  
"Like I said, it’s started by current and former players so if it’s started by current players then obviously a lot of guys know about it."
For me, that's an even less coherent and sensible explanation so I just don't buy it. Sunaya Sapurji took it even further:
"Who are the people involved here? I know that Georges Laraque has been hired as the Executive Director but who hired Georges Laraque? Who else is involved in this? Nobody seems to know."
"[The CHLPA] put out something on their Twitter on [Aug 22nd] informing players that if they hadn’t been contacted by the CHLPA, to contact the PA themselves. One of the players I have spoken to did that and he has yet to hear back from them."
"I was able to find two players that were contacted by the CHLPA before this was announced on [the 20th] but they actually seemed more confused after talking to the PA than the players who knew nothing about this."
The confusion isn't just held by the media. Kamloops Blazers forward Dylan Willick shared his thoughts in a series of heated Tweets on his Twitter account on August 27th:
"It's great being the voice for the voiceless, however, the players still seem to be the voiceless here. Not a player I know has had the opportunity to speak with a rep and get the full story or even add their opinion. So who's opinions are they expressing? Your's or ours? Before you get this snowball rolling, take a step back and get the support from the players. Or are you scared we won't support it and by the time we realize that, it will be too late? Thought's from a player you 'represent'."
This past weekend the Edmonton Oil Kings held their annual pre-season tournament and played host to five other WHL clubs. It provided me the opportunity to ask a handful of key players about their knowledge of the CHLPA and if, like the CHLPA claims, their team has a player representative in place. 

Chris Driedger
First up was Chris Driedger (OTT): 
"Honestly, not much," said Calgary Hitmen goalie, "There have been a couple of Twitter messages sent back and forth but I’m not really sure what they’re all about. It looks pretty cool, I mean, it’s nice to have some representation for the players of the league so I’m pretty excited about seeing what they have to offer."

"I haven’t been approached by anybody," the Ottawa 3rd round pick added, "I have gotten a message from them on Twitter but that was just about if I had any questions sort of thing. I don’t think that they have approached anybody on the team yet but I think that is their next step. I’m not sure if we have a rep, I’m not aware of any rep (laughs) but I’m sure we might have one in the near future."
The next player I chatter with was Medicine Hat rookie Miles Koules who had very little to say on the subject:
"I have no word on it. I got a [message] on Twitter but I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t heard of [a player rep].
Adam Lowry
Adam Lowry (WPG) is the top player for the Swift Current Broncos and a leading candidate to be the club's captain this year. Surely if he isn't the team's union rep, the veteran would have at least heard who is or who has been contacted by the CHLPA.

"All I’ve heard about it is through Twitter, they kind of tweeted at me once but I haven’t really looked at it. If they are going to look out for our best interests then in the long run it could turn out to be a good thing. As long as they don’t look to lock us out!" he said laughing, "I don’t know who our union rep is right now, I guess we’ll wait to see."
Next up was Curtis Lazar of the Edmonton Oil Kings, a player expected to go very early in the 2013 NHL Draft. 
"I actually haven’t heard much at all. It seems to be really in the beginnings so I’m just sitting back and focused on playing hockey"

Keegan Lowe
Lastly, Keegan Lowe of the Oil Kings and the Carolina Hurricanes who summed up things pretty well. 
"We haven’t heard a lot about it, nobody that I have heard of has been approached. Whether or not we need it, I don’t know. This league is about making it to the next league," said Lowe. I then asked him if the Oil Kings had a rep. "Not as far as I know."
So are we really to believe the CHLPA's claims that 60 percent of the 1300 players in the CHL were on board a couple of weeks ago and that every team across the country has a player rep in place? Why should we when the players themselves are oblivious to anything their "union" is claiming?

On top of the multitude of inaccuracies and errors coming from the CHLPA in their statements on Facebook and Twitter, how are we supposed to take them seriously? For a group that suggests they've been in the works for 14 months, they seem woefully uneducated in what actually goes on with junior hockey.

Yesterday the CHLPA spent the day releasing "estimates of ticket revenues" for each CHL club via their Twitter feed. The purpose for doing so is unclear considering regular season ticket sales are not the only source of income for CHL teams and focusing only on revenues without citing expenses is pointless. That is unless the point was simply to say that teams sell a lot of tickets, or some do anyway.

Yet even those numbers, skewed as they would be, were obviously flawed. The CHLPA claimed the Edmonton Oil Kings sold "146,124 [tickets] with est revenue at $4,427,557.00 Just in ticket sales". Simple math makes that out to be an average ticket price of $30.30 but the problem there is that the club doesn't even sell a ticket for more than $30 let alone have that as the average cost.

Even if the add wizards at the CHLPA took attendance figures and multiplied them by the most expensive tickets that each team sells, it still doesn't take into account that season tickets are usually much cheaper and are probably 50% of what are sold by teams. That's just an educated guess.    

David Branch and Stan Butler
Stan Butler, GM and head coach of the Brampton Battalion, was a recent guest on The Pipeline Show. Butler has been in the OHL for a very long time but has also coached a bit in the WHL. I asked him his thoughts on the CHLPA and while he wasn't allowed to comment directly about the proposed union, did touch on the financial plight of many teams across the country. 
"When I came in to Oshawa in 1994 I think our budget there was about $600K to run our team and I know last year in Brampton we were about $1.8M and there’s really not a whole lot of difference in revenues from ’94 to now."

"I think what people need to realize is that you can’t look at London, Windsor and Kitchener and think that everybody is getting that amount of people [to games]. I mean, there are a lot of teams including in the West like Prince Albert and Swift Current that have challenges like ourselves or Mississauga or Kingston have in our league when it comes to revenue to sustain the types of budgets that we’re putting out there now." 
What it comes down to is fairly simple and put best by Sunaya Sapurji:
"I think that anytime that you have more player advocacy, I think that’s a fantastic thing and I think this group’s heart is probably in the right place but the way they’ve gone about it has been, frankly, a disaster. The more that can be done to help the players in the CHL the better and I don’t think anyone is arguing against that."
So far the most success the CHLPA has managed is to get the hockey world talking about things like improving the CHL's scholastic packages. That's a positive. 

If the end result in all of this is that those players who do not achieve their CHL goal, (a professional contract with a team in the NHL, AHL or in Europe), will have longer access to their education package then great

But is a union required to accomplish that? 

Like many things about the CHLPA, my answer to that question is also "I don't know".

Others who have appeared on TPS recently to share their views on the CHLPA include Andrew Walker of Sportsnet 960 The Fan in Calgary (Listen), Patrick King from Sportsnet.ca (Listen) and former WHL and CIS player Gavin McLeod (listen).  

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