On a macro level across North America, there’s an ongoing battle for the hearts, minds – and most importantly, the monies – of elite teenaged athletes who are major revenue generators for their development leagues. In the United States, the NCAA collegiate system is involved in a momentous high-stakes showdown with former athletes – with potential repercussions that could shake their business model to its foundations. And in Canada, a similar war is being fought at the major junior hockey level, with the latest volley taking place Friday: a $180-million lawsuit filed against the Canadian Hockey League by former players (including former Niagara IceDogs player Sam Berg, son of retired NHLer Bill Berg) seeking outstanding wages, holiday, overtime and vacation pay and employer payroll contributions and alleging basic minimum wage laws were broken.
Leave aside the particulars in both cases, and you’re left with the same essential questions: if we’ve turned amateur sports into big business, how much of the cut do amateur athletes deserve? And why do owners get to dictate that players’ dreams of playing in the best league they can has a monetary value equal or greater to the actual money their current organizational structures bring in? It's been a Canadian tradition to romanticize players chasing their dreams for free, but when everyone can see the amount of money that's being made, why is it so unfair for athletes to be included in the financial windfall?
Certainly, it’s worthwhile to ask who is involved with any particular lawsuit – and in their initial response to Friday’s suit, the three commissioners involved at the junior hockey level (OHL commissioner David Branch; QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau and WHL commissioner Ron Robison) did exactly that. While promising they would “vigorously defend” against this latest legal action, the trio accused brothers Randy and Glenn Grumbley, union activists who attempted to start the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association, of being behind it.
“Despite all mentions to the contrary, recent communications and social media posts by Glenn Gumbley of the CHLPA lead us to believe that the Gumbleys are still actively involved on the fringes of junior hockey in Canada and with this action,” the commissioners said in a joint statement. “The CHL will once again issue warnings to our players and their parents cautioning them about the Gumbleys.”
The commissioners also pointed out the strides the CHL has made in recent years in terms of improving its scholarships for players – or “student athletes”, as the league has taken to calling them – as well as the funding it puts in place for billeting, mental health and mentoring programs. That is undeniable and commendable. But is it enough? When the CHL is profiting from relatively new revenue streams that include satellite TV and internet packages and has corporate partners that would make many other professional leagues jealous, does $35 a week – as some QMJHLers make on the low end of the scale – constitute a fair return for the services rendered by its athletes?
Berg and the other players behind the lawsuit (who don’t have to make their names public and risk blowback from the hockey establishment) believe it does not, just as former collegiate star Ed O’Bannon thought it was unfair the NCAA used his likeness to make millions in profits from video game sales. O’Bannon sued and has caused the collegiate monolith great consternation with fears over what the landscape might look like if the status quo isn’t maintained.
The same fears were raised by the three CHL commissioners Monday. They said Berg’s lawsuit “will not only have a negative effect on hockey in Canada but through all sports in which amateur student athletes are involved.” But there’s certainly no proof they offer to buttress their argument.
On the other hand, there are the athletes themselves, some of whom are speaking in stark terms. Berg told the Toronto Star “A lot of us see it like OHL players are used like racing greyhounds. (The league and team owners) use us until they can’t anymore and then kick us to the side.” Clearly, they've experienced the "negative effect" the commissioners spoke of.
Regardless of how you feel about either side, it's impossible argue this issue is close to being solved to the satisfaction of all involved. Berg’s lawsuit may fail, but if the CHL doesn't continue modernizing the manner in which it compensates athletes, our litigious world all but guarantees the dissatisfaction that has boiled just beneath the surface at the junior level for decades will be tapped into again in a different courtroom with different plaintiffs.