Last month, a group of teenage junior hockey players reminded us that when employees band together they have the power to positively impact their working lives.
The Flint Firebirds were a month into a mediocre inaugural Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season and were losing to the defending Memorial Cup Champions, the Oshawa Generals, 3-1 in the third period. However, against all odds, the players rallied to tie the game in regulation and win in overtime.
It should have been a highpoint of the season. Instead, when the players walked off the ice, they learned that the owner had just fired the entire coaching staff. The reason? The owner felt that his son, a rookie on the team, was not getting enough ice time. The players were incensed to learn that their coaches, who had just led them to their biggest win of the season, had lost their jobs.
Every player on the team marched to the owner’s office, took off their jersey, threw them on the floor, and quit the team (seriously…they recreated a scene from the 1993 film Rudy!!). Even the owner’s son stood in solidarity with his teammates and told his father he quit. This turned into a social media disaster for the Flint Firebirds, as word quickly spread celebrating the players’ actions and condemning the owner’s rash decision. The team had to disable its Facebook page because of all the negative comments the story generated.
The owner immediately back-peddled, rehired the coaches and apologized, admitting he made a mistake. The OHL’s commissioner stepped in and helped mediate a resolution. The coaches, players and management were all able to move on and get back to playing hockey.
This may not sound like a big deal, but, considering the context, this was an incredibly impressive and brave move on the part of the players. While some of them may be drafted into the NHL, most will not, and over the last few years many people have documented the precarious positions in which junior hockey players find themselves.
Junior hockey leagues have been notoriously obstructive of attempts from the players to unionize. The Canadian Hockey League Players Association (the CHLPA) has been attempting to become the official bargaining agent for junior hockey players for a number of years now and has alleged that the leagues have done everything in their power to resist this movement, including trading players who supported the CHLPA and reducing their ice time.
This is unfortunate, because the working conditions for these 16-20 year-olds are horrendous. The players will only make a $50 stipend per week, despite their lives being totally engrossed with hockey (junior hockey ticket revenues being in the $160-million range). The Canadian Hockey League (the CHL – the OHL is a branch of the CHL) has opposed arguments that these players should be paid minimum wage, saying they are “amateur student athletes” (more on this later).
The players also receive a university scholarship; however, to many players this is largely illusory. The scholarship is supposed to pay for a years’ university tuition for every year they play, but the players only have 18 months from the end of their junior career to use the scholarship, or it expires. It also expires if the player signs any sort of professional contract.
This puts hockey players who have a long shot of making a living as a professional (which is almost every junior player) in a precarious position: do they pursue their dream of becoming a pro hockey player and risk losing their free education, or do they take the free education but abandon a career in hockey?
Also, the second the player signs a contract to play junior hockey, they are no longer eligible to pursue a hockey scholarship in the U.S. Remember how I said the CHL says that players are “amateur student athletes”? Well, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) considers them to be professional athletes, making them NCAA ineligible.
This is all in the context of what is undoubtedly an incredibly dangerous workplace. As the NHL concussion lawsuits (and common sense) highlight, hockey is a dangerous sport. Many junior players suffer severe and permanent injuries as teenagers, which impact the rest of their lives.
Also, as current NHL player Richard Clune documented here, the conditions in junior hockey are ripe for players to develop drug and substance abuse problems.
The experience of Sam Berg highlights the vulnerability of junior players. When he signed with the Hamilton IceDogs, the team promised to provide him with a four-year university scholarship. However, after a year of playing, he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury, and had to quit hockey.
He enrolled in a four-year university program, but the team refused to honour the scholarship. At first, they argued that it was only on the hook for one year of the scholarship, because Berg did not report to camp (due to the career-ending injury). However, the team later learned that the OHL never approved his contract; therefore, it now argues he never should have been allowed to play and they owe him nothing. Berg has since become a representative plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the CHL.
In light of the vulnerable age of these players and the egregious work conditions, these are employees who absolutely need an organization to lobby on their behalf. Players like Berg should not have to sue the CHL to enforce their rights. They need an organization that has standing to lobby on their behalf. However, the junior hockey teams and league have fought to extinguish any hint of union activity among its players.
That is what makes the actions of the Flint Firebirds so impressive. Despite the fact that they could face serious repercussions for any collective activity, and risked what little compensation they get, the players decided to unselfishly unite for their coaches. Let’s hope that this is the start of more collective action on behalf of junior hockey players.