Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

“Professional” Sports – Inside Junior Hockey

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Part 1: Summary

Sam Berg, while not bound for stardom being a 14th round pick in the OHL, had professional aspirations in the game he loved. His unbridled enthusiasm was evident, as he “jumped off the wall” (Cibola, 2015) when he received the phone call alerting him that he was drafted. There was nothing stopping him from having every opportunity to achieve his dream; that is, until he did not make the OHL and a shoulder injury derailed his career altogether.

Berg however, had academic aspirations as well. He had signed a contract with McMaster University, allotting a full scholarship for Berg to play on the hockey team. To Berg’s dismay, said contract was not upheld by the OHL; they had not even signed it. Outraged, Berg turned to class-action lawyer Ted Charney, who convinced the teenager that there was more at stake. Together, they launched a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League.

The class-action lawsuit has since gained traction; the group of former players demand minimum wage, holiday pay, and basic Canadian employee rights. This however, like any social-movement, is accompanied by scorn, criticism, and outrage from the public. As the status-quo begun to be challenged, Berg received the brunt of it all (including from his grandfather). He has undertaken a cause that he believes to be just, and while it may “ruin” the Canadian junior hockey system, it is well within his rights as a Canadian citizen to do so.

Now, years later, Berg has no ties to the game he once loved (other than the impending lawsuit). He has cleared his room of all memories, stopped following the sport at the professional level, and speaks cynically when addressing hockey altogether. The issue is quite prevalent, as many will be affected by the outcome of Berg’s class-action case. Its reach extends far beyond junior hockey players, and into the communities in which they play, and those living in said communities. Changing junior hockey changes Canada.

 

Part 2: Critical Analysis

            Junior hockey is widely seen as “hockey in its purest, most sacred form” (Cibola, 2015). It connects Medicine Hat to Chicoutimi, transcends culture, race, religion, and unifies the country by cheering for teenagers who are attempting to pursue their dreams. Fans buy tickets, jerseys, and merchandise, ultimately sustaining these small-market teams, so much so, that these players are afforded the opportunity to play the game they love. Junior hockey however, has been touted as being the junior league most likened to the NHL in the world; it prides itself on its professional makeup. These professional aspirations transcend all levels of the league; the general managers have professional aspirations, as do the coaches, players, and even the mascots! These aspirations are what drive the negative experience that Berg outlines in his case against the CHL. Junior hockey is caught somewhere between a unifying community organization and a professional hockey league. Despite its shortcomings, much like my position on professional sports in general, has the opportunity to offer great things to a plethora of people. The given negatives in large part fueled by capitalistic aspirations, can be eclipsed by the many positives. The CHL is lesser of all evils in “professional” sports.

Junior hockey, despite offering quite a bit to their surround communities, do not necessarily appease Foster and Hyatt’s “fan nation paradigm” (2008); the fickleness of the leagues truly impedes their ability to do so. Despite seeing pictures of Brad Richards and Sidney Crosby within the halls of the Colisee de Rimouski, it is posited by Mason, Duquette, and Scherer that the actual arena is not seen as a part of the heritage or nostalgia; it is in fact the act of attending the game and watching the stars on the ice that satisfy that criteria (2006). Despite the limitations junior hockey has in relation to fandom, it still does benefit the communities at large; many do so without turning a profit.

As cited in the article, only one third of CHL teams earn a profit, while one third break even, and one third run deficits. Despite professional aspirations within said organizations, there are philanthropic agendas amongst the owners of many of these franchises. Many owners purchase and operate their respective teams in the interest of the city they love. Hundreds are employed, tourism (albeit minor), is brought to the cities, and players are given the opportunity to achieve their dreams, while all being qualified to subsidized (or free) post-secondary education upon completion of their junior careers. Those however, are not the only benefits players receive.

In addition to an education, players receive weekly allowances. Typically, they fare $60/week, but this is simply spending money. Billets offer their homes (and fridges) to these athletes, housing and feeding them throughout the season. On the road, meals are paid for by the team. Equipment is purchased by the team, apparel, and on many occasions, formalwear needed to wear to games. There are virtually no vital expenses for a junior hockey player. Aggregated, this amasses to thousands of dollars every year in informal payments. While Berg argues that “labor in sports is not different than labor in general”, he is right. However, for the parallel to be made in labor, so too must it be made in compensation. Free accommodation is not the standard in other industries, and while expenses covered on the road (business trips) and equipment necessary to perform one’s job is expected, there are still many other expenses to account for. According to Stats Canada, in 2015, a household of one spends roughly $35,816 every year on average; this includes rent, food, education, and other expenses (Stats Canada, 2015). Conversely, minimum wage throughout the country averages at roughly $11.00/hour (Stats Canada, 2017). If the CHL was equated to full time pay (7 days/week, 10 months/year), it would amass to $26,000/year. That would not cover expenses. One must ask, would life truly be better for junior hockey players if they were to be paid? The analysis however, does not halt at comparing revenues and expenses, as it too becomes a social issue.

Berg’s case is fight for rights and freedoms guaranteed by Canadian legislation. He, along with his like-minded peers, are fighting for equality, equity, and justice for junior hockey players as a whole. They are seemingly frustrated with the capitalistic regime that concentrates profits to a select few. The question is, what if there are no profits?

A minimum wage in the CHL would absolutely foster the closure of many CHL teams. At the bare minimum, two thirds of the league would be running immense deficits, as they do not effectively pay billet families, and would now incur the entirety of the added cost of salaries. Teams would fold, regardless of revenue sharing. This would be detrimental to Berg’s cause. Many of his peers (himself included as a former replacement level player), would have been/would be out of “work”. The most socialist of ideas likened to Guilianotti’s Marxist approach, has capitalistic consequences. Only the best couple of hundred players will be employed when all is said and done. That is of course, if the sparsity of the teams throughout the country and the increased travel times from Kelowna to London would not put the surviving clubs in the red, ultimately folding the CHL altogether. If Giulianotti describes sport as an “ideological tool to misleading the masses to sustain bourgeois control”, then the CHL hardly constitutes as sport (Guilianotti, 2005). The vast majority of owners have no financial interest, and the masses are the ones benefitting at large.  There will be nowhere to play hockey, and no subsidized education (while playing junior and afterwards). This all however, does not make light of the rigorous conditions these teenagers are put through.

Early practices, late nights, long road trips, and little free time is the norm in junior hockey. In a study published by the University of Guelph, roughly one third of junior hockey players lose more than 1% of body mass after a tough practice (Palmer & Spriet, 2008). Moreover, in another study conducted within the BCHL (a junior league similar to the CHL), 379 concussions were reported within a two-year span; 90% of said concussions occurred within a game (Goodman et al., 2000). Conditions can often be quite grueling, there is no denial of that fact. It is not an easy life, however, as previously detailed, the informal compensation is substantial. Many posit that these hockey players cannot choose where they play (Cibola, 2015), however, that only holds true within the confines of the CHL. Every year, hundreds of drafted players forego the life offered by the CHL to pursue other junior leagues and NCAA aspirations. The CHL “drafts”, often likened to those for war, do not bind one to play for one specific club, simply one club within the league. The choice is also the players’ to not play at all; they can pursue scholarly pursuits, attend their local university at cost, and live very normal lives. Junior hockey is in fact a choice, and an ongoing one at that.

The fact remains that the CHL is not perfect, nor will it ever be. It is however, the lesser of all evils in “professional” sports. Revenues are passed onto local communities, and the players are afforded opportunities that otherwise would have not been made available to them. There are issues of overworking teenagers, however, it is in pursuit of a dream and large paychecks. Despite the minimal chance of ever reaching the NHL, (nearly) all players are given the opportunity to attend Canadian university upon completion of their time in the league.

Many questions are still to be asked, as much of this area is in fact grey.

  • Can conditions get better for junior hockey players?
  • Is the hockey community as a whole better without junior hockey?
  • Can a “youth team” system, as seen in European soccer, be a better alternative to junior hockey?
  • Are junior hockey players employees?
  • Does any amount of “goodwill” counteract the negative impact junior hockey has on certain players’ lives?
  • Is junior hockey a professional sporting league?

The Following is a pair of comic strips outlining the juxtaposed positions of both sides. While the players maintain that they are at the whim of the their CHL franchises and therefore demand compensation, the CHL argues that one cannot get blood from the proverbial stone. There are simply not enough profits to be shared.

References

Canada, G. O. (2017, January 27). Average household expenditures, by household type (One-person household). Retrieved October 31, 2017.

Conrad, M. (2015, May 20). Hockey/Nashville Predators/Smashville. Retrieved October 31, 2017.

Current And Forthcoming Minimum Hourly Wage Rates For Experienced Adult Workers in Canada. (2016, December 06). Retrieved October 31, 2017.

Foster, W. M., & Hyatt, C. G. (2008). Inventing Team Tradition: a Conceptual Model for the Strategic Development of Fan Nations. European Sport Management Quarterly,8(3), 265-287.

Giulianotti, R. (2005). Sport: a critical sociology. Cambridge: Polity.

Goodman, D., Gaetz, M., & Meichenbaum, D. (2001). Concussions in hockey: there is cause for concern. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,33(12), 2004-2009.

Hune-Brown, N., Tetlock and Dan Gardner, P. E., Gillmor, D., & Fontana, K. (2015, November 20). Hockey’s Puppy Mill.

Mason, D. S., Duquette, G. H., & Scherer, J. (2005). Heritage, sport tourism and Canadian junior hockey: nostalgia for social experience or sport place? Journal of Sport & Tourism,10(4), 253-271.

Mayes, M. (2015, September 14). Malcolm Mayes cartoons for May 2015. Retrieved October 31, 2017.

Palmer, M., & Spriet, J. (2008, January 16). Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

 

 

 

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