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The Daily Chum: Junior hockey is broken and we might not be able to fix it

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Erie Otters v Mississauga Steelheads Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

Imagine you have a job where you’re asked to work full time hours, make immense sacrifices in your personal life and experience little development other than that which directly relates to your current job position. Now imagine that you get paid around $800 a month for the privilege.

While overly simplified, that’s the sort of life that junior hockey players currently live. Their jobs, and that’s what they are, dictate everything that happens in their lives. As children, and most of them are, they are drafted and sent to a team that may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their family.

This all benefits, you guessed it, the owners and sponsors and fans and professional hockey leagues a lot more than it benefits the majority of its players. That’s not to say that all those who work in junior hockey are fairly compensated, based on personal experience in minor league sports in America I imagine many are not.

What we know for sure is that the players aren’t getting their fair share and the gravy train the owners have been riding for many years may be coming to an end. In a very long and compelling affidavit, Lukas Walter both details his time spent in the Western Hockey League (with the Tri-City Americans) as well as responds to comments from team owner Bob Tory.

It’s pretty damning. I read the whole thing and certainly recommend the same to— you just want some excerpts? Fine. Fine. Here are a couple excerpts.

11. Mr. Tory repeatedly states throughout the Tory Affidavit that WHL owners, including himself and his three ownership partners, are in the business of developing and supporting young hockey players and are not driven by the possibility of earning a profit.

12. To the contrary, in my experience playing for the Americans, it was always apparent to me that Mr. Tory and the other Americans owners, management and coaches were in the business of operating a hockey franchise, with the primary goal being not to develop the players but to win more games and therefore increase revenue.

Junior hockey is certainly not about developing young players — not at the elite levels, anyway. Players are drafted, traded and given ice time dependent on their current skill, not necessarily based on their potential. This isn’t really a controversial opinion as just looking at the way these clubs are run pretty much confirms it.

Clubs want to win hockey games, in part I’m sure because winning is fun and everyone likes to win, but primarily because a competitive hockey team sells more tickets and merchandise than a terrible one (the Toronto Maple Leafs are exempt, I guess). So when an owner of one of these teams claims he’s in it for the kids, he’s probably just trying to make sure all your money goes to him.

During his time with the Americans, Walter says he made $200 a month during his first year and $240 a month during his second year. The WHL refers to this as a stipend, while Walter and the rest of his teammates called it what it actually is: a paycheck. The WHL refers to players as student athletes despite requiring a full-time commitment that effectively prohibits players from working another job or truly committing to their studies.

81. I never thought of myself as an intern, trainee, or apprentice and I am not aware of any player who has ever thought of himself as an intern, trainee or apprentice. WHL players are never referred to by their coaches, fans, or teammates in these terms. I was never aware that I was part of an internship or apprenticeship program with the Americans.

No kidding. It’s hardly a surprise to see a company try to extract an unfair amount of work from an “intern” in 2016, but it’s absolutely laughable that anyone can believe these players fall into this group. In the Tory affidavit, he claims that the WHL clubs “derive little, if any, benefit” from the players. Here’s Walters response to that ludicrous claim.

83. The clubs benefit from the services performed by the players. The benefits to the clubs are obvious. There would be no club without the players. It is the players who attract the fans and media attention to the rinks and who attract all of the associated revenue sources such as sponsorship, broadcast revenues, video games, and so on.

This seems like a no-brainer. Teams make money off their athletes at every level, whether it’s pro leagues, minor leagues, colleges or junior hockey. To act otherwise is at best naive and at worst manipulative. In the following expert, Walter describes some of the non-hockey demands placed on him and his teammates.

CHL players face many demands in addition to the practice, training and game schedule. We are expected to give media interviews, sign autographs, and engage with the community on a consistent basis. CHL players are expected to exhibit professionalism at all times. Players must wear suits to games, and carry themselves with dignity around the community, even when not at team events. While I was playing with the Americans or Sea Dogs, I could be disciplined for not dressing professionally or for misbehaving while socializing in my free time.

These demands are similar to those placed on professional athletes, both in minor leagues and at the top levels of sport. Minor league athletes are, in general, desperately underpaid as well as this same issue has begun to rear its head in Minor League Baseball, too.

Like in Minor League Baseball, the system in place for young hockey players in North America benefits the teams, the fans, the local economy and (to an extent) NHL teams. It does not benefit the players to an appropriate level given their importance to making the system work.

Players deserve more money and teams claim they can’t afford it or that doing so would in some way corrupt the sanctity of junior hockey. If this sport ever had any sanctity, it has long since been spent. If junior hockey franchises can’t afford to pay their players a fair wage, then perhaps it’s time for them to close up shop. The burden to save this structure is about to be pushed back on to the owners, where it belongs.

For more information on the CHL Class Action Lawsuit, head here.