The importance of player unions

Quick, let’s start the hockey season before the junior players are locked out as well.

Piecing together a few thoughts, the idea of a Canadian Hockey League Player’s Association makes simultaneously a lot of sense and a little sense. There have been denials on both sides, evidently, that anything will come of the alleged meeting with players representing all three leagues.

The sticking point for me is that to sell the idea of a union for players, you need a pretty big face, or players risk being blacklisted for their support. The best CHL players were last week, were scattered across the globe in Yaroslavl, Halifax, Breclav and Piestany for various August international tournaments. The NHLPA had Ted Lindsay, the NFLPA had Jim Brown and the NBAPA had Bob Cousy. The MLBPA had Bob Feller. Without a big-name captain or star, can this really get off the ground?

The CHL is an odd league. The best players only stick around for a year or two, using it as a stepping stone between minor hockey and the NHL, while the players who form the strongest bond in the community tend to be depth players until their 20-year old season.

That represents a bit of a divide between the big players, who are fought over by different CHL organizations and the NCAA, and the weaker players who have a limited shot at pro hockey after their junior careers are over.

Right now, I think the CHL is experiencing the drawbacks of an un-checked system. Without vigilance over how teams spend money, nasty things happen and are said to happen. Last week, of course, the Windsor Spitfires were targeted for providing a player (or multiple players) with improper benefits. A student newspaper and the Kitchener Rangers settled out of court after the newspaper accused the Rangers of the same.

This doesn’t just affect the CHL’s reputation in the USA, but it also hurts small-market CHL clubs, who can’t afford to compete financially with the big clubs. It’s the same sort of problems the NHL faces, but if the union gets any power and negotiates a higher stipend or better education benefits, if there isn’t also a revenue sharing program attached, it benefits the clubs with money. A team like London is in a hell of a lot better position to pay players than a team like Brampton.

The NHL and the CHL have a cozy relationship going. The NHL has a league that develops players for free. Player development in Canada is a huge, huge business with summer skating and technical camps for bantam-to-midget aged players paid for by parents to give their kids a better shot at the NHL. Hockey is an expensive sport from the get-go, and it’s not a good investment for a kid to be merely “great” at hockey and not “excellent”.

It’s sorta bullshit that the reality of being a sports fan in 2012 is that money rules, no matter what level of the sport you watch. I think, however, that there are benefits for being a fan of a league with a strong union as opposed to a weak one. I’ve linked the following Will Leitch post about reconciling football violence as a fan, and part of the reason it’s tough for me to really get into NFL football is the knowledge that for players with concussions, it’s pretty well a “get back out there” or “you’re cut” mentality in a league where the union has so little power.

We enjoy the NFL because we can forget what goes on behind the scenes, the brutal things these players do and put themselves through, the notion that they need to make themselves fatter and less healthy in order to better land on the quarterback with a crunch and put bounties on other teams’ stars. We enjoy the NFL because it looks so good on tele­vision that you can follow it linearly—just follow the ball—without having much idea of what’s actually going on. The NFL makes you believe you are an expert even though 99.999 percent of the millions who watch every Sunday couldn’t say the name of a single play.

The NFL wants you to think about what goes on behind the curtain as little as possible. I don’t blame them. There’s a lot to hide back there. I’m just not sure I can do it anymore. [NY Magazine]

Fans like to complain about the high salaries made by people who play a game for a living. The reality is that if there’s billions of dollars to be made by a league, the players ought to be entitled to their share. Players unions don’t exist for the skill guys, the big-money guys, the Zach Parises and Shea Webers of the world who make multiple millions of dollars a year. In fact, their value is capped, and it’s probably higher than owners spend, thanks to the cap. It’s there for the Michael Sauers and Adam Deadmarshes.

One of the sticking points of the last lockout is that the NHL instituted the salary floor and the minimum salary, which was higher than replacement-level players were being paid in the earlier days. The NHL looked at the market, saw that salaries for high-scoring veterans were spiralling out of control, and reeled them in, promising that the majority of the players, the replaceable grinders that don’t sell jerseys, would make more than they’re worth.

And after the many years in August training camps to keep equal footing with their friends and rivals for spots on various rep and junior clubs, and eventually pro, they probably deserve to come away with a little more than an “I played in the NHL” ribbon.

Whether that’s a slightly higher salary in their short NHL career so they can invest in their post-hockey career, or a slightly better education package so they can make their own schooling decisions out of junior, I think players deserve something. I prefer to think that I pay money to watch them, not the owners, play.