On Thursday the CHLPA circulated a letter to the OHL clubs, CHL President David Branch and Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson. Yesterday I shared insight into that scenario after I had an opportunity to speak with CHLPA spokesman Derek Clarke.
Today I continue the story by focusing on the actual motive behind Thursday's move. According to the CHLPA, it's not about the money at all.
A reminder that the following account of events comes from the CHLPA. I am not a member or a representative of the proposed union and have actually been one of the more outspoken voices in the media questioning the very legitimacy of the group.
That said, what follows is a recap of events as it was explained to me and should not be taken as my own personal opinion except where plainly obvious.
Thursday's maneuver by the CHLPA was done after a large scale conference call within the proposed union. As mentioned yesterday, Derek Clarke went into detail explaining the process in which decisions and directions the CHLPA makes are made. In this case, it was after the conference call which involved a representative from "at least 50" of the 60 teams in the CHL.
According to Clarke, the executive board of the CHLPA consists of an undisclosed number of current CHL players and that board became frustrated with recent events including the recent denial from the Alberta Labour Board. The CHLPA had requested that the mandatory 60-day waiting period be waived so that the players of the five WHL teams based in the Province could act without delay.
That application was denied but smashed by the Labour Board.
The Pipeline Show obtained a letter which details the argument from the defence, the five Alberta based WHL teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. (References below to "Local 99" mean the CHLPA while "The Teams" is the the five WHL clubs). [*NOTE* - this section was initially described as coming from the Alberta Labour Board in their decision but that was my error.]
"At paragraphs 3.6, 3.7 and 4.2 of Local 99's submissions, Local 99 asserts that the players' youth and inexperience with workplace and labour relations makes them vulnerable. This fact speaks to one of the purposes of the time bar in section 37(1)(a) which is to provide employees with an opportunity to learn about a union which seeks to represent them.So the defence actually took the CHLPA's argument and used it against them. Perhaps the harshest sounding portion of their argument came shortly after the above entry:
Rather than supporting Local 99's position, this fact actually suggest that consent should be withheld. It is important to note that the players in question are part of the Canadian amateur hockey system and as such are amateur student athletes, not professional players..."
"The CHLPA is not a well-established labour organization. Quite the contrary. It is brand new, as is Local 99. Very little is actually known about the CHLPA or Local 99, who is promoting and funding them, and what their true purposes are. They have no operating history or performance to rely upon. No track record. No seal of authenticity. They do not even have any physical presence or resident representative in Alberta. "The Teams" have been seeking information about the CHLPA and Local 99 to better understand them. Such information is difficult to obtain. The CHLPA and Local 99 have resisted identifying their representatives. The circumstances of who they are and what they are about are worthy of question and the time and opportunity for players to review and consider these matters. Their legitimacy in in question. The players and their parents should have the benefit that the Code allows to anyone in respect to new trade unions. The players' youth only amplifies the importance of this rest period before a trade union may file a certification application."As awful as those two excerpts sound, and they do sound damning, Derek Clarke surprised me with his reaction to the Board's ultimate decision to side with the WHL teams.
"We got a ruling today [Thursday] that we have to wait the 60 days to have the vote, which is fine. We respect that ruling," he told me, "We thought we had a better position because of the unfair labour practices [Calgary Hitmen] and so forth but the Labour court didn’t recognize that."
Wait, what? The CHLPA failed to have the 60-day wait removed and it's "fine"?
It's more than fine as a matter of fact. The ruling actually contains the exact wording that has spurned on the next step for the CHLPA which was the letter sent out to the OHL teams. Read those two chunks again and see if you can pick out the line that the proposed union has jumped on.
See it yet?
"I can tell you right now that the atmosphere amongst the players that were on the phone call... remember that they get to see all of the legal documents that go back and forth between the lawyers. When the defence filed that motion in Alberta, I can tell you one thing – there was not one happy camper amongst them," Derek Clarke told me on Thursday night.
If you haven't figured it out yet, the line from the ruling above that has set all of this in motion is: "It is important to note that the players in question are part of the Canadian amateur hockey system and as such are amateur student athletes, not professional players...".
"They were told when they signed [CHL agreements] that they [the players] were professionals and now they are amateurs?" said Clarke, "‘Well if I’m an amateur hockey player how come I’m not eligible for the NCAA?’. That really got them. That struck a nerve with the majority of them."
According to Clarke:
"[The players] sign a contract that tells them that they [the owners] are running a professional league. They’re being paid a stipend, or a salary, to play there. The CHL deems itself to be a professional league," Clarke laid out, "What they’re told in a meeting compared to what they are actually signed to, I’m not privy to that. But in the next stage the CHL lawyers are calling it an amateur league and are calling it an amateur hockey association. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t suck and blow, it’s just not happening. You’re either amateur or you’re professional."
"If you’re amateur then open up the amateur status, if you’re professional then let’s start paying them as professionals or providing the avenue to get the education, it’s one or the other."
And therein lies the crux of the CHLPA's entire platform. The CHLPA has gone on the record several times stating that they were not advocating for an increase in the weekly stipend and in fact would support doing away with it because, in their mind, it is one less obstacle in the way to maintaining NCAA eligibility - more on that in a bit.
Thursday's action, on the surface, completely contradicts the CHLPA's own stated goal of retaining NCAA eligibility for CHL players. After all, if the current stipend, as inconsequential as it is, is enough to "contaminate" a player's amateur status, obviously paying them much more would do the same.
"That’s the issue at hand that was explained to them [the players]. That could be a bargaining position or a tool that’s used to bargain," Clarke said.
So how does Thursday's letter to the OHL teams make any sense from the CHLPA's perspective? Because it's a feint. It's not really what the CHLPA wants at all.
It's designed to get the attention of the CHL and Hockey Canada, which it has done. One can argue whether Friday's response from David Branch was a success for the CHLPA or not but it is the most the CHL has publicly acknowledged the proposed union since the regular season began a month ago.
But again, the endgame for the CHLPA is not to see CHL players suddenly drawing a regular salary but to have a new income structure in place to service the educational expectations of the players. (Details on that tomorrow).
"The players that were on the call would forgo the stipend as long as they had the NCAA eligibility. They don’t want it. Who wants the $50? They’d rather take their chances to get the education packages," Clarke insisted, "This is what they couldn’t understand during our more than 2-hour conference call. The defence letter that went over in Alberta and said they were members of an amateur hockey association sent these guys off the deep end."
"If they’re amateur athletes then they should be classified as amateur athletes under the Hockey Canada umbrella and that would open up the NCAA eligibility."
Clarke further confirmed that the proposed union does not want the players earning a salary and that the OHL letter was a tactic to steer the conversation back to education.
"We’ve never mentioned salaries; we’ve talked about contamination money, but this was one of the leverages that we have," Clarke said, "It was explained to the boys and that’s when it was mentioned to them early in September but they didn’t want to pursue that route. But after now... one time you’re professional and you get a salary when you sign to contaminate you but now all of a sudden when it comes to unionize you’re now an amateur? Which doesn’t matter anyway because you could be a part of a union as a student, it doesn’t matter if you’re amateur or not. But they’re trying to say that it’s OK to be classified as an amateur for this reason and that just doesn’t hold water with anybody. This [defence] has been done by the lawyers on behalf of the owners, if the owners approved that I would be very surprised, I can’t even see that. If they [the league] want to be classified as amateurs, we’d rather take that classification and have amateur status."
The education packages from the three leagues that make up the CHL vary and I personally can't speak with authority to all of those differences. It's my opinion that the scholastic offerings from the leagues as they are now are very good. Could they be improved? I'm sure they could be. I've written on that subject many times in the past including here and here.
It's definitely the biggest bone of contention that the CHLPA has right now.
"The CHL refuses to accept that there is an issue with the education package," Clarke stated, "Mr. Branch seems to think that it’s the best in North America. I’m not sure what he compares that to; obviously not to a NCAA scholarship because that is obviously a lot better than what a CHL education package would be. If he’s comparing it to another league in Canada that offers education packages, I’d like to know what league that is – is that tier II, junior B or what?"
"From our point of view, [The CHL's] refusal to accept the issues that the players are bringing forward and continuing to focus on the good that they’ve done, which trust me, there is a lot good, but the issues that the players are complaining about are not being addressed," he continued, "One of the players said on the call that ‘if they’re not going to provide me with a better education package then they’re going to start paying me and I’ll use that money for my schooling’. And that’s where we’re at right now."
I asked Clarke what happens next?
"Now we hope that the CHL will rectify the situation that’s there or at the very least pick up the phone and respond to our questionnaire on where to meet and talk and do a voluntary recognition," he outlined, "If not then... we have to take our marching orders from the board but I think the next steps after that will be the minimum wage act at the labour board in Ontario and in different provinces and different courts. And then very shortly after that it would probably be the class action. Either way. The amateur status is the way they [the players] want to go and I’m hoping that the CHL can see that. What’s amazing is that the CHL is so dead set against the players forming a union but they don’t even know what the association wants. they’ve never asked."
Maybe it's just me but it seems like the CHL and the CHLPA have one thing in common; both claim they have tried to contact the other with no success. Both apparently are waiting to hear back from the other but apparently no one has left a return phone number.
Lastly, Clarke did go out of his way to compliment both the CHL and Hockey Canada while he summed up the proposed union's position.
"I keep saying that the CHL does a great job and they do. I believe that there is no better league in North America and there is no better program than Hockey Canada’s program in developing players but at what cost?" he said, "If you’re not willing to rectify the situation and keep burying your head in the sand saying ‘we do this great and this great’ but don’t deal with the issues that are at hand, you’re never going to get better and advance as a league. The players are telling the owners at this point, that there are issues. I don’t know why nobody is listening."
Coming Next: The CHLPA's mission to preserve NCAA eligibility for CHL players is an act of complete futility... isn't it??? Maybe not. I'll explain how and why plus go over some ideas that the CHLPA has to expand and grow the CHL - some of which make some sense to me while others will definitely draw a reaction from fans, media and maybe even the owners and players too.