Labour Challenge Presents The Daunting Prospect Of CHL Paying NHL Prospects
Auston Matthews, the rookie star of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been the talk of the NHL this young season. The first draft pick overall last June in the 2016 amateur draft, he’s shown that the hype about him was justified. For the woebegone Leafs, that is significant.
What’s also significant was the way Matthews got Toronto. The American product did not play in the Canadian Hockey League, the top tier of junior hockey. He did not play in the NCAA for an American college. He instead chose to play his final year before the draft against grown men, not fellow teenagers, in a professional league in Switzerland.
He also got paid. He did not ride in buses through the frozen Canadian night. He did not play a long, debilitating schedule of up to 100 games. He lived in a modern European city.
This route would never be a practical solution for the the many hundreds of young men who play in the various tiers of junior hockey and the NCAA. There simply aren’t enough spots available in Europe.
Yet it seems like reasonable development path, no? One that others might be interested in following? The comparison to junior hockey’s meat-grinder with its pittance level of compensation makes it seem like an unfair contrast. But almost all the top Canadian prospects— and many American ones— still choose the CHL
Junior hockey’s special status in Canadian sport has always been something of an enigma. For decades, it was a zero-sum equation for all sides. Owners operated on a shoestring budget, living on 50/50 draws and bake sales, abetted by a salary cap that kept players earning $50 a month for decades. Players? A few made the NHL. The rest went back to complete high school or mend a broken heart.
Sometime in the 1990s, however, junior hockey became— in certain markets— a profitable venture. While the Prince Alberts and Moose Jaws remained break-even propositions, many other teams saw their value increase substantially. Junior hockey became a value proposition in a lot of markets. NHL clubs put teams in their own buildings to fill out dates.
The noise then began in certain quarters that this rising tide should raise the players’ boats, too. After all, they hadn’t given players a raise in decades. While CHL owners came up with a scholarship plan for players who did not advance to the NHL, there was still a cry for the billions flowing into the hockey business at all levels to flow to the young men auditioning for places in the world’s greatest hockey league. (There is a similar issue with NCAA athletes in several sports.)
There have been discussions of a union for junior players or taking their case to provincial labour ministers to have standards for pay, holidays and education established. Some have talked about workplace safety issues being tested at the government level.
While the case for action seemed self-evident to anyone who has studied the business of hockey development, it was still opposed by the notion that this might hurt The Game, the romantic catch-all phrase employed to excuse the excesses of the business. Players like Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky whispered the term as if it were a prayer.
The clout of the cult was clear last year when— after vigourous lobbying from the Western Hockey League— the B.C. government exempted the province’s six major-junior hockey teams from minimum-wage laws.
This tap dance looks to be at an end, however. As the National Post reported on the weekend, “an Alberta judge on Friday ruled that the WHL and the Ontario Hockey League must hand over financial details about its franchises, which have long insisted that any attempt to fundamentally change the way its players are compensated would bankrupt most of them and cripple the leagues.”
If the junior leagues are forced to adhere to even the most rudimentary laws about the labour of these teenagers, it would likely be the end of some cities that now house CHL teams. It would likely be the small-town markets in the Maritimes and the West that succumb first. If Europe skims off the top 50 prospects, it would rob junior hockey and the NCAA of their special status as a development system. With the best players working at 17 years old for euros, who would want to watch the role players and wanna-be’s left overFrankly, there are already way too many junior teams in existence at the moment (over 100 in top tier and Junior A). A dozen teams fewer would be better for development and competition. If the CHL wants to maintain the legacy teams junior operators can decide if they want some revenue sharing to keep the Medicine Hats and L’Acadie Bathursts around.
But it’s clear junior hockey is about to undergo a seismic shift if the courts or government have their way. Or else see more Auston Matthews look for alternatives ways to train for an NHL career.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy. Bruce is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald and the Globe & Mail.