Roger writing the LAWmag
04
Oct 2012

Labour Law: An Odd Choice

Every organization or association in the world has been created to address an injustice or to rally people of similar interests around a discernible cause, with a problem looking for solution.

The recently announced (and they now have a legal name), Canadian Hockey League Players Association seems to be a solution looking for a problem.

There are some very distressing initial signs of what gives the appearance of being at least a semblance of legitimacy in terms of the representation of employees almost all under the age of majority. The most startling is the hiring of a former National Hockey League enforcer (fighter) not known for intellectual acumen, Georges Laraque, and not only as executive director but also now, apparently, as spokesperson for the organization.

The only apparent advantages to hiring Mr. Laraque is his notoriety and the fact that he is reasonably bilingual. But on that last point, you need only listen to his numerous YouTube video clips which adorn the new website of the CHLPA to appreciate that his vocabulary and command of the English language, using the term loosely, leaves something to be desired.

George Laraque, CHLPALaraque describes the mission of the CHLPA as follows (with our apologies for the grammar presented verbatim):

"So now you are wondering, 'what is the mission?'" Well, the 18-month restricting policy imposed by the CHL regarding education is just unacceptable. Other players have the right to that education and when they want to take it. So we want to offer different packages that will help players who wants to go to university, who want to go to trade school or simply invest in a company. We also have a plan to make sure that the players playing junior hockey will not lose (use?) the right to play in the NCAA if it doesn't work out in their junior career. We all want to help all players seeking advice for any personal problems they may go through during their hockey season. We also wanna create the line of conduct for all teams to follow to make sure all the players rights are respected on all fronts."

So much is unclear from the statement that, and to be polite about it, if the organization is as articulate as the spokesperson, God help the players.

Through a process of reverse engineering, the problem the CHLPA appears to seek to address is a protest against the CHL's policy of paying for the tuition of any retiring hockey player for up to four years in university provided the player starts his university within the 18 months from the end of his junior career.

As far as seeking advice for personal problems is concerned, absent a Ouija board, it is difficult to understand what personal problem could be contemplated that would not normally be handled by the parents, the billets, the general manager, the coach, teammates, assistant coaches and the team's office staff, all of whom go out of their way to ensure that each individual player is looked after.

Not all CHL teams are equal but all of them put their reputations on the line in the care they provide their players since many of their draft choices do have the option of NCAA play. The NCAA does not allow CHL alumni in their league because they are construed to not be amateurs since they receive room and board and allowance of $35 per week for 16-17 year-olds, $50 for 18 year olds, $60 for 19-year-olds, and $125 at age 20.

The reference to the NCAA makes no sense. That is an American sports organization with no linkage unlikely little interest in the CHLPA, especially if the delegation is headed by Laraque. In any event, the idea that the NCAA would put their eligibility rules on the table in discussions with George Laraque is almost laughable. In that regard, it appears almost irresponsible to make commitments like this to a young group of adults.

As far as "line of conduct" is concerned, it is impossible to determine precisely what the harm or the problem is that the proposed CHLPA is reaching to fix. 'Line of conduct" (whatever that is), for what?

The ineptness of Laraque's YouTube videos to his purported community really comes out in the video that he prepares for player agents. Once again, the script speaks for itself and we have been kind enough to change "dis" to "this", "da" to "the" and "arm" to "harm":

"This message is to all the agents. Guys! The CHLPA and all the players are looking for your full support in this worthy cause. We're not here to negotiate contracts with the players. This is your job and you may continue to do so as you please. We do not intend to charge any money for the players as we intend to operate the CHLPA as a percentage of the collective bargaining agreement. Were also not here to harm any small-market team because we want to encourage the league to generate revenues like all the other professional sports do. Agents. We believe that the union will make your life much easier as will ("we'll"?) deal with the issues and you will be able to focus to bring your players to the next level."

The YouTube for the players is almost as comedic. Again, a verbatim transcript does not do justice to Laraque's patronizing statement:

"Hi! I'm Georges Laraque, the new executive director of the CHLPA. I really want to address this message to all the players. Guys! I understand all your issues because I've been through it all; whether you're talking about gas money, equipment issues, training in the summer or educational issues. Together, we could change all that. But you guys need to be unified. All 1300 players need to be one voice. One voice that talks to all the owners and says 'enough is enough. We're united as a union and we want some changes.' Some changes that will create a powerful union that's going to help all of you and all junior players for generations to come."

Hi!?

Guys!?

Raising these issues is not intended to demean Mr. Laraque but to clear the fog and give a glimpse of future collective bargaining agreement negotiations between a highly-trained group of CHL or NCAA executives on one side, and George Laraque on the other. How does that ill-fated exercise service the body of 1,300 young men who might benefit from the proposed CHLPA especially in these formative months where credibility and reputation is all the association has to build on?

The real sad part of this whole fiasco is that there may well be legitimate concerns to be represented to the members of the CHL. There may be some adjustments that would be fairer for the players especially the tight deadlines to enter university after major junior retirement. It presents a very difficult choice to a young man who might have a minor pro career and who would then have to choose between his hockey or his tuition-free prospects.

The education package provides the retired player with up to $7,000 a year for tuition books and fees on the basis of one year tuition, books and fees per season played. Each team pays approximately $30,000 a year towards the education benefit.

The owners of many teams do make small fortunes and some of the team regulations are unusual such as for those teams that have them, a prohibition against dating cheerleaders.

CHL team owners keep their business close to their chest, which is no different from any other private corporation. One Canadian case did recently strip away the layers of privacy and share some of the features of ownership in the CHL (Guelph Centre Partners Inc. v. Guelph Storm Ltd).

In The Law of Hockey, the author notes that CHL teams are typically sold for $3 million. In Victoria, the Victoria Royals average 5,000 fans per game and in addition to ticket sales, also benefit from concession and souvenir sales.

To put Laraque out there as a spokesperson appears to be a clear step backwards. The job is one for a knowledgeable lawyer or M.B.A. with a background in labour law, male or female, who is both articulate and able to communicate efficiently not just the players but with all other interested parties.

It is unclear how Laraque got appointed but ice hockey does have a past when it comes to unsuccessful appointments to the head of player union: Allan Eagleon, Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly come to mind.

Laraque is also identified as national deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada. That appointment has been lampooned by political pundits since it was made in 2010.

You almost have to read his biography to believe it and keeping in mind that this is the proposed biography of the Executive Director of this proposed national organization. Some snippets:

"I have to say my childhood was pretty good.... Even though soccer was my favourite sport, it became my goal at an early age to make it to the NHL. This was to show all the people who showed prejudice towards me that one day, they would have to swallow everything they ever said about me. And did they ever..... I remember at a young age it was such a pet peeve for my dad to have overweight kids and on the weekend he would make us run laps and bring his timer with him. We hated that, but it sure paid dividends for all of us.... I ended up in the NHL, my brother played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and had a great career."

Noticeably absent are words such as "high school", "college", "CEGEP" or "university" or even "education".

George Laraque made his money because of his fists. In one season, 1994, he had 259 penalty minutes and 62 games (his stats are online at Hockeydb.com [http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php?pid=19350].

The appointment of this individual as executive director has done a great disservice to what may be a legitimate cause. In fact, according to one journalist (Steve Ewin), players and parents are becoming increasingly alarmed with approaches they are receiving from the CHLPA which, if the videos are any indication, are predictably clumsy and awkward.

What we are not seen is strong policy and legal direction so this movement, if it is worthy, gets off the ground correctly and make the necessary linkages to interested parties.

The CHLPA needs to go through the cumbersome certification process in each Canadian province and the National Labor Relations Board in the United States. That process will require concerted professional and legal direction and credibility.

Assuming even for a minute that CHL players are being maltreated or suffering relative injustices in their dealings with their teams, the greatest disservice the CHLPA could have done for that interest group is to have appointed the incumbent executive director.

Laraque says that he's not the initiator of the Association; he says there are real CHL players behind the CHLPA but he is the face of it as the players would suffer retaliation if their identities were made public.

Laraque appears to have come to the position by attrition. He told the Montreal La Presse newspaper:

"People have to understand I did not apply for this job. I did not send in my CV. The truth is that they asked many people and everybody else declined."

One way for the three major junior leagues in Canada to defuse any hard-feeling that may exists among their rosters - if any - and which might also provide them with a constant flow of ideas to improve the life of their players, is to create an office of ombudsman. That ombudsman would be an independent, arms-length office, paid by the league, and able to engage the player in confidential discussions as issues arise.

It would also give the league another source of ideas on ongoing player-management improvement.

The other initiative might be a quinquennial confidential survey of the players to see in what areas improvements may be made to the life experience offered, now, by major junior hockey in Canada.

Many hockey parents see in the CHLPA some value-added for their sons. If it is to be viable, the CHLPA needs a playmaker - not a bull in a china shop.


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