Canada's largest private-sector union, which is trying to organize major junior hockey players across the country, is scheduled to meet on Monday with Ontario's minister of labour to discuss the working conditions faced in the Canadian Hockey League by its 1,700 mostly teenaged players.
Jerry Dias, Unifor's president, said he plans to ask Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn to establish a task force charged with scrutinizing the business of junior hockey.
Dias told TSN that when he met with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne three weeks ago at Queen's Park, Wynne brought up the issue of working conditions in junior hockey with him. Dias said Wynne told him she is interested in learning more about whether players get a fair share of the game's profits.
Flynn's spokesman Craig MacBride declined to comment.
Wynne's spokeswoman Zita Astravas said both the premier and Flynn have already met with Dias.
"Discussions covered a wide range of topics," she said. "Unifor is an important partner and our government looks forward to a positive relationship with labour."
Two years after a similar attempt to organize CHL players fizzled out, Unifor is trying again. The union, which represents about 300,000 workers in various industries, says major junior players are underpaid and exploited by the owners of junior teams that have become hugely profitable in recent years.
The CHL says that's not true. Players don't receive more compensation because the leagues consider them student athletes, said CHL commissioner David Branch. Many players are also eligible for valuable scholarship programs when they finish playing junior hockey, he said in an interview.
Dias said Unifor staff have spent the past few weeks trying to determine how governments in the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- states where eight of the CHL's 60 teams play -- view major junior players.
Canadian students who attend U.S. schools, such as the University of Michigan, obtain student visas to travel across the border. But NHL player agent Anton Thun said that since OHL players have "P1" work visas, it's unclear how Branch and other league officials can consider those players as student athletes.
"I don't profess to know the immigration laws," Branch said. "I don't know what you need to facilitate a player playing in the U.S."
Thun said the three major junior leagues in Canada are desperate to keep their player costs down at the same time as the leagues' collective profits have surged.
"These leagues have gone from being mom and pop businesses in the 1980s to hugely profitable money-making private businesses that sell millions of dollars in tickets, hundreds of thousands of dollars in jerseys and sponsorships and TV rights. The truth is junior teams are no longer what they say they are."
Most CHL teams are private companies and don't disclose their finances, though Branch said roughly one-third of teams lose money. He declined to provide any estimates on how much money cash-rich or cash-poor teams generate.
The Kitchener Rangers, who are publicly owned, play in a city with a population of 219,000. In August 2013, the team reported total revenue of $6.2 million for the previous season, up from $5.6 million. The Rangers sold $470,000 worth of team merchandise alone.
One of the lures of playing major junior hockey is the chance to earn a scholarship that can later go to pay for a player's post-secondary education. The packages can add up to more than $40,000, depending on how long a player plays in the CHL.
Thun said a union might help spur a discussion about simply paying players that money in cash.
"Why not just give it to them, and let them and their families decide whether to invest it, or spend it on a car, or something else that they want or need," Thun said.
Branch, however, said the parents of players have been supportive of the scholarship packages, even though it expires if a player doesn't go to school within 18 months of their junior career.
In a focus group of about 16 families of OHL players that was conducted five years ago, most parents said they supported the time limit, Branch said.
"What if the kids indiscriminately spend the money, what are they left with?" Branch said. "Parents have suggested there is a value to putting a framework in place to encourage players to go on to a post-secondary education."
Branch said he's unsure what it might mean for teams if they were forced to begin paying a minimum wage to players.
Unifor's Dias said an average 40-hour work week adds up to about 2,000 hours a year. If players in Ontario were paid the minimum wage of $11 per hour for half the year, it would work out to about $11,000 per player, or at least $220,000 a year for each team.
It's unclear how much teams now pay for players, but in recent years, the OHL paid players $55 a week. The league recently introduced new guidelines where teams re-imburse players for expenses instead of paying them a set weekly amount.
Not everyone would embrace the concept of a union.
Bob Stellick, a sports marketing executive whose son Robert played two years in the OHL, said many parents would shrug off the idea of a union.
"I don't think $50 a week really makes any difference for most families," said Stellick, whose Toronto company has produced public service announcements for the CHL. "The key for parents is the type of experience their son gets. If the player doesn't play to family expectations, isn't drafted, gets traded once or twice, and doesn't complete high school, then yes the family would be sour."
Award-winning journalist Rick Westhead is TSN's Senior Correspondent for TSN's platforms - TSN, TSN Radio, TSN.ca and TSN GO.
He has covered a wide variety of sports issues for a slate of leading publications, among them the Toronto Star, Bloomberg News, Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, New York Times, and Saturday Night Magazine. Earlier this year, Westhead was part of a team that won the prestigious Project of the Year at the National Newspaper Awards. He was also honoured with the Toronto Star's Reporter of the Year Award in 2007.
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