The Canadian Hockey League's top official is fighting back against Canada's largest private sector union, which says it wants to improve working conditions for the 1,300 mostly teenaged hockey players who compete in the country's three major junior leagues.
Unifor, which represents workers in industries such as the auto and media sectors, is trying to convince the Ontario government to organize a task force to examine the junior-hockey industry.
David Branch, president of the Ontario Hockey League, has sent a series of emails to OHL players and their parents over the past few weeks to thwart Unifor's efforts.
In three emails obtained by TSN, Branch advises players that they do not have to sign union cards, are not required to attend any non-team off-site meetings, and can refuse requests from third parties for their personal information.
Branch is also president of the Canadian Hockey League, which represents the OHL, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It's unclear whether Branch or other officials have sent similar emails to players in those leagues.
In his emails to players, Branch included links to a Toronto Star story in July that reported a controversial figure in the hockey world named Glenn Gumbley was involved in Unifor's attempt to organize players.
Gumbley's involvement tainted a failed effort two years ago to organize junior players after he contacted members of the media using someone else's name. While Gumbley asked Unifor earlier this year to consider taking up the junior hockey issue after the United Steelworkers union declined, Unifor president Jerry Dias told TSN that Gumbley is no longer involved.
Dias and several hockey player agents say a union for major junior hockey is needed because compensation to players has not kept up with the times. Dias said franchises are now selling for as much as $10 million.
"The London Knights are probably worth $20 million," he said, "but they're still paying kids like $50 a week, the same as they were in the 1980s. They haven't even kept up with inflation. Are you telling me that with teams putting 8,000 fans in an arena, selling tickets for $17, at least one dollar of that cannot go to player salaries?"
Todd Christie, an NHL player agent, told The Globe and Mail in 2012 that if OHL players were paid Ontario's minimum wage, players would have collectively received $15 million between 1980 and 2006.
Branch's emails come as Dias says Unifor is making progress.
But Branch disputes Dias's claims.
Branch says that the OHL alone is paying out some $5 million worth of educational scholarships this year to the league's former players. The OHL has also changed its policy on its education packages. Players used to be required to attend school within six months of finishing their junior career, or they would forfeit their scholarships. Now, players can wait 18 months, perhaps giving them time to test the waters on a pro career.
On July 8, a day after the Toronto Star story was published, Branch emailed OHL players.
"In your time with us we look to provide you with the best player experience be it through training, education, player development and health and safety. We want you to be able to fully focus on the playing and developing in the game you love while learning valuable leadership and teamwork skills," Branch wrote. "While you are in the CHL, please know that regardless of who asks, you are not required to do any of the following: give our your personal information; sign a union card or attend any offsite non-team meetings."
Dias confirmed that some players in Quebec have been asked to sign union cards by Nicholas Pard, who played three seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs in Quebec's major junior league. It is unclear how many players signed union cards. Pard is now playing pro hockey in Europe, Dias said.
Days after his first email to players, Branch emailed the parents of players. In that email he referred to OHL players as "amateur student athletes," a key description. Calling the players "student athletes" helps the league justify not paying players at least minimum wage, Dias said in an interview.
On Aug. 21, Branch sent another email to parents.
"We firmly believe that no third party can provide the player experience that the CHL does in cooperation with our partners – the players and their parents, and our partners in the game - the CIS, Hockey Canada, the NHL and many others," Branch wrote.
The parents of several OHL players said it was unusual to receive multiple emails from Branch during the off-season. Dias said the emails show how worried Branch and other officials are about prospective change to the game.
"They say we are messing with the game," Dias said. "I say we are trying to protect the rights of these kids."
Dias said he's spent the past weeks speaking to both current and former major junior and NHL players, player agents, and politicians. He wants the Ontario government to establish a task for to scrutinize working conditions in the OHL.
Branch told TSN that the emails were sent because the league is working to improve communications with players and families.
"In terms of the reference to not being required to sign a union card, we felt it was important to let our parents and players know that they are not obliged to do so," Branch wrote, adding that he also emailed a link to the Toronto Star story in July about Unifor's efforts.
One NHL player agent, who also represents players in the CHL, told TSN that Branch's tactics are "straight from the management handbook of labour relations. Discredit, deflect issues, avoid real issues."
While a source told TSN that several OHL team owners are now lobbying members of provincial parliament, arguing that a union would ruin the game, Branch said that the OHL has not yet organized a coordinated lobbying effort.
"There are teams in 17 locations in the province, in 13 of those locations the OHL team is the number one sports and entertainment property," Branch said. "All of the teams are connected in their community and with their local elected officials at all levels."