Mario Forgione says Canadian Hockey League teams across the country have used teenaged players to inflate profits and have abandoned some players who don’t make it to the NHL and need help transitioning to a life after hockey.
Forgione owned the Mississauga IceDogs from 2003 to 2006, alongside co-owner Chris Pronger, and has also owned Tier II junior teams in Milton and Pembroke, Ontario.
Forgione says he quit the Ontario Hockey League after it became clear to him that his views about the league’s obligations to players didn’t align with other owners.
His frank condemnation comes with the CHL under scrutiny over how it treats its young players.
Canada’s three major-junior leagues, the OHL, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, are facing a trio of lawsuits over working conditions of players. Both Ontario and Washington state are considering requests to establish task forces to explore whether teams are violating minimum-wage legislation, while efforts also continue to unionize junior league players.
Forgione said in an interview with TSN.ca that the OHL has become big business where many owners don’t do enough to help players after their playing career.
“Does the league wash their hands of them and say we are done with them? Yes. This is what they do,” he said. "Players are a disposable commodity. The league has a social responsibility to look after these kids, but a lot of [former CHL players] haven’t even finished Grade 12. Then what happens? Minimum wage jobs.
They say: 'Here’s your education package, God bless you, off you go,'” Forgione said. “A lot of players fall through the cracks in the OHL. What happens after they play four years, they’re 21. How many guys are going back to school at that point? The teams are supposed to have an educational consultant on the team, but let’s face it, you've to keep on top of 30 kids, 16, 17, 18-year-old boys. It’s hard enough to make sure one kid is going to school, let alone 30."
Forgione said, "The bottom line is when they have done a four-year stint in the OHL, what are they equipped to do? If they aren’t equipped to do something meaningful in life, where do they end up?”
One current OHL team owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, bristled at Forgione’s critique and said the one-time IceDogs owner doesn’t have statistics to back up his criticism. While Forgione owned the IceDogs, the franchise was a perennial money-loser, the current team owner said.
“Forgione was not great for this league,” he said.
Forgione reportedly bought the IceDogs for about $4 million and sold them three years later for about $9 million, according to media reports.
“Fortunately, he’s no longer an owner in our league, he left in 2006,” CHL Commissioner David Branch said. “I would suggest [in the eight years] since Mr. Forgione left, there has been significant changes in the player experiences made in our league.
“You’ve got a view of a person who’s no longer involved in the league,” Branch said. “I don’ t want to debate Mr. Forgione. He has his view and that’s fine.”
Branch confirmed active CHL team owners have been told by the CHL head office not to speak publicly regarding the union efforts and lawsuits.
CHL team officials have warned in recent months that, if they are pressured to pay players minimum wage, a concession former OHL player Sam Berg has asked for in a lawsuit filed in October, the development might drastically alter the game.
Some teams might even fold because of the added expense, Branch has said. Others might start charging players for their sticks and other equipment and stop covering the cost of billets.
Forgione calls that argument a red herring.
“If the teams can’t afford to pay minimum wage and they go out of business, so be it,” he said. “If six teams fall out of the league, so what? Branch says, ‘we’re not going to be fair to anyone because it will affect our league… I think they do develop hockey players but they are also very focused on their own self-serving agenda, to have a strong league with financial viability (Editor's note: Forgione was speaking facetiously. Branch did not make the remark about fairness).”
“To me, the OHL should not be a mainstream, for-profit business venture,” Forgione said. “Players and parents are afraid to speak out. What happens to a kid that knocks the coach or GM or league? He’s blackballed. Let’s be honest about this.”
Several former OHL players told TSN.ca say they are not surprised that current players are leery about speaking up.
Daniel Altshuller, who played three years with the Oshawa Generals before he was drafted in 2012 by the Carolina Hurricanes, said those players who criticize the OHL can “seem ungrateful."
“You can get a stigma and become known as a selfish player,” Altshuller said. “I wouldn’t want a teammate like that."
Even so, Altshuller said players - especially the majority who don’t advance to pro hockey careers - deserve to make their case for a bigger portion of revenue from the fast-growing OHL.
But at the same time, Altshuller worries where that might lead.
“It could be a double-edged sword,” he said. “Maybe instead of using Easton sticks, the teams switch to lower-cost ones to save money because they have to pay players more… or maybe they cut cost on travel. When we played in Ottawa, we’d drive the night before and stay in a hotel, even though it was just a three-hour drive, to get some extra sleep. Maybe the team would look to cut those costs."
Altshuller made it a point to say that he had a positive experience in the OHL and said his team had employees on hand to ensure players attended class.
Branch disagreed with the suggestion that the OHL is doing as well as it ever has financially, despite a new TV contract that pays the league an estimated $5 million a year, according to a person familiar with the matter, and despite the fact the CHL has a strong portfolio of corporate sponsors.
“I wouldn’t say it’s better than ever,” Branch said. “There’s a push and pull every season with some franchises."
Branch said he’s opposed to efforts to establish of a provincial task force to examine working conditions for OHL players.
“We’ve met with people at Queen’s Park, but not about [a task force looking at the OHL],” he said. “Our players are being looked after. They are amateur student athletes."
But even that description has come under tough scrutiny.
In the U.S. this spring, a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board gave Northwestern University football players the right to be recognized as school employees and, as such, the eligibility to collectively bargain for work conditions such as salaries.
While the OHL changed its standard players contract this season, describing players as “student athletes” instead of “independent contractors,” Branch insisted the change has nothing to do with what’s happening at Northwestern.
“They are not employees,” he said. “It’s for that reason we re-positioned our standard players agreement. Our adjustments and changes started long before any of that [at Northwestern] started to surface."
The OHL began working on changes to its standard player contracts three or four years ago, he said.
Forgione now runs a Toronto-area real estate company and said that he doesn’t accept that players in major-junior hockey are “student athletes."
“I don’t know how you consider them student athletes if you’re not guaranteeing them an education,” Forgione said. “At Michigan State, a kid plays for the school and gets an education at the same time. In the OHL, he’s not playing for his high school or university, he’s playing for a for-profit entity completely outside the school.
“I don’t know that [the CHL] can continue to make money on the back of players who are given a stipend that’s as little as possible because it affects their team’s bottom line,” Forgione said. “If you want to be in the sports business, be in the business at a higher level where all the people involved understand all the implications. Then you have a fair and level playing field. I don’t know that, if you are in the minor hockey business, that everyone understands the business."