^ Back to Top

← Back to Newsletter

Chasing the NHL dream

Christopher Curtis, THE MONTREAL GAZETTE

MONTREAL — Kevin wasn’t a goon. He dropped the gloves about 30 times during his major junior hockey career, but he wasn’t some thug on skates. Kevin fought within the bounds of the hockey code — engaging only when someone put hands on a smaller teammate or took liberties with the team’s goaltender.

He fought when he felt it was necessary; often throwing down with bigger, meaner kids.

He never complained about it. He was a good teammate.

Nor did he complain when he was traded from a team in western Quebec to a smaller-market club in Atlantic Canada.

Even today — after his team initially refused to pay him the scholarship money offered when he signed with them — he has only nice things to say about his time in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Like many elite-level hockey players in their mid-teens, Kevin signed a contract with the understanding that for every year he gave his team, he’d get a year’s worth of university tuition in return.

And yet it took his entire first semester at university, a time in which Kevin and his parents went back and forth with the league, to finally get the club to honour the agreement.

“One of the loopholes (in my contract) was that you had to pass all of the courses that you attended while playing with the team in order to qualify for a scholarship,” said Kevin, who spoke on condition that his last name and the name of his former team not be published. “So, because I slacked off while I was playing in the (QJMHL), they said I didn’t qualify at first. … It was a little frustrating because when you’re with the team, your job is to win games. School isn’t a priority. You’re chasing the dream. It feels like the NHL is within your grasp.”

So he bled for his club and he bruised his knuckles to protect teammates — two of whom moved on to careers in the National Hockey League. Kevin, now 26, spent his teenage years busing it from one highway town to the next, earning $50 a week — for what was essentially a full-time job — with the hope that he would get something back from hockey.

Had Kevin and his parents not pushed back, he would have walked away from the game empty-handed.

A look at the players from five 2006 QMJHL teams chosen at random shows that more than 60 per cent of players didn’t see a dime from the scholarship fund administered by the Canadian Hockey League — which oversees the 60 teams that constitute the country’s three major junior leagues: the QMJHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.

The majority of these young men forfeited their scholarship rights because they chose to pursue a career in pro hockey, earning low five figures in the minor leagues in the hopes of being called up to the NHL.

Meanwhile, the deadline on their scholarships expired.

The vast majority of those pro hockey players retire from the game in their 20s without significant savings or a university degree. In the worst cases, their bodies are worn down from years of diving in front of pucks and absorbing bodychecks.

Still, hundreds of former junior athletes benefit from the CHL’s scholarship fund each year. In 2013, the league paid out $5 million in tuition fees to its alumni.

And the CHL also produces more NHL players than any other junior league in the world. However, less than five per cent of the 1,300 players enrolled in major junior hockey will play more than a few games in the NHL.

In an interview with The Gazette, CHL commissioner David Branch said that over the last six years, since the league took over the administration of the scholarship program from individual teams, there have been no problems regarding access to the education package.

As for the 30-month time limit for players to claim their scholarships, Branch said it was designed to encourage the young men to get serious about school after hockey.

“Research shows that the longer someone is out of school, the less likely they are to return,” Branch said. “What we push is, unless there’s a serious possibility of a player pursuing a career in the NHL, they should be in school.”

 

A PLAYERS’ UNION

There is no players’ association in junior hockey.

The CHL considers its players student athletes rather than employees. But unlike in the U.S. collegiate system, the 16-year-olds drafted into one of three CHL leagues don’t get to choose where they’ll play or what school they’ll attend.

They compete in upwards of 100 games a season, sometimes missing classes for a week while travelling with their team. Each player earns a monthly stipend of about $450 — which the league raised this year from $200. Instead of living in a dorm on campus, they are assigned a billet family.

Perhaps the most mentally taxing aspect of junior hockey is that a player can be traded mid-season.

Ryan Lehr learned that the hard way.

While playing for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in 2006, Lehr was told he’d been dealt to a team in Prince Edward Island, within driving distance of his hometown.

It was great news. He’d be able to see his family regularly.

But mere minutes after learning about this happy trade, Lehr found out the P.E.I. team, in turn, dealt him to Chicoutimi.

The new life he’d imagined for himself was gone. The trade sent Lehr even further from home. He was devastated.

He could either accept the trade or quit hockey for the season with little guarantee that another team would pick him up during the summer.

“My coaches basically gave me five minutes to decide what I wanted to do,” Lehr told The Gazette. “It’s clear what they wanted. They wanted the trade to go through.”

Within a few minutes, he piled his equipment into a pickup truck and headed for the bus station. That night, Lehr joined his new team for a road game in Quebec City.

“I can look back at it and laugh but I was pissed off, I was confused,” said Lehr, now 28 years old. “It doesn’t feel very good to be told you have five minutes to make a life-altering decision.”

Lehr finished out his playing days in the QMJHL and collected his scholarship from the league. He graduated in sociology from New Brunswick’s St-Thomas University in 2010, and says he has fond memories of his hockey days.

However, he says, situations like his highlight the need for an entity to advocate on behalf of the players.

“It would have been nice to have someone to call, someone with your interests at heart,” he said.

“A lot of the coaches and staff are great guys but they’re looking out for themselves, for their team.”

Ontario native Jamie McKinven never played in the CHL, opting instead to pursue a hockey scholarship at Clarkson University in upstate New York.

It was when he began coaching Tier II junior hockey in Kingston — mentoring kids who’d just been released from CHL clubs — that he started to notice something troublesome.

“I spent a lot of time with players coming back from major junior and most of my time was spent talking them out of hating themselves,” said McKinven, author of So You Want your Kid to Play Pro Hockey. “At that stage in their careers, the kids are pretty depressed and dejected. They feel like failures.”

He says the CHL should offer its players scholarships with no strings attached. He’d also like to see an easier travelling schedule and access to mental health resources.

Under the CHL’s new education package, players can claim their scholarship within 30 months of finishing their time in junior major (the length of the contract was extended by 12 months this year after mounting pressure on the league).

But letting go of the dream so quickly is unlikely, says one former CHL player who is now in his 30s.

“There is a huge incentive for these kids to carry the torch and keep playing,” “There is a huge incentive for these kids to carry the torch and keep playing,” said James, who spoke on condition that his name not be published. “If you have to choose between quitting hockey to go to school and giving the game one more chance, that’s not an easy decision. Especially for a starry-eyed 18-year-old.”

The CHL, James says, uses the lure of NHL glory to recruit children while coaches nurture that dream to get the most out of their players.

“You’ve built your whole life around the dream, it’s hard to just turn that off when the CHL is done with you,” he said. “So you wake up one day just scratching your head going, ‘Jesus Christ, I was paid basically nothing, I spent four years of my life living in a town in the middle of nowhere, having an owner make, in some cases, a lot of money off my back, while I was taking punches in the face to support a dream I had.’ And I find out, on the back end, that I’m not really qualified to do anything when it’s all over.”

 

MENTAL HEALTH

Terry Trafford was a prospect whose greatness never materialized.

Living away from home, playing for the Saginaw Spirit in Michigan, Trafford started to slip. He broke several team rules during his four years with the Spirit — a major junior team in the Ontario Hockey League.

Last winter, the team suspended him after he was caught smoking marijuana.

Instead of driving back to his family in Toronto, Trafford pulled his truck into a Wal-Mart parking lot and killed himself.

It was later revealed that Trafford struggled with depression. He chose to hide it from his teammates and family — something experts say is common among people who suffer from depression.

It would be oversimplifying to link Trafford’s death to hockey, but the tragedy brought attention to the stress young athletes face. This season, the OHL began implementing a mental health strategy for its players and staff.

Dr. Neil Widmeyer, a sports psychologist who works for the Guelph Storm, has seen a draft of the plan and told reporters last month that it’s “a good step.”

He said the plan emphasizes an understanding of the factors that trigger depression. It encourages teammates, coaches, billet families and teachers to be vigilant about mental health.

As one might imagine, competitive hockey players are reluctant to speak openly about depression.

McKinven says he used alcohol to cope with the stress of elite hockey during his time in Ontario’s Tier II junior league.

“I played with a lot of guys who had drinking problems,” he said. “I didn’t realize that I had an issue until I finished playing. … But when I was with my teammates, it was just normal. … If I had a problem and I wasn’t feeling right, if I tried to go to my coach, there’s a good chance I would have been released because I would have been considered weak. There’s a stigma surrounding that and it’s still very prevalent in hockey. Don’t show any weakness.”

Don’t show any weakness: a phrase repeated by the 10 former CHL players interviewed by The Gazette — most of whom refused to be quoted for this article.

James played for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, in front of sold-out crowds who expected their team to compete for the Memorial Cup (the CHL’s championship trophy) each season.

The pressure to win, to get to the playoffs, to be drafted by an NHL club, was constant.

“With some coaches, it’s: ‘Win at any cost,’ ” he said. “Because they want to end up in the NHL, too. They can ride a good team or a good player to a job in the pros. … There’s stuff that goes on that I would say is borderline mentally abusive to 16-year-old kids.

“Coaches yelling at kids, telling them they’re shit, banging hockey sticks near their face and throwing garbage cans, throwing skates at the wall. There’s tonnes of that shit that goes on that nobody outside the team sees.

“If parents and other people saw it and there was a culture that permitted players to talk about it, people would be pretty appalled at what goes on behind the scenes.”

Although each CHL team has a player liaison — a teacher or police officer that players can confide in — they’re usually not mental health professionals and they report to the coach and management.

One former employee of a QMJHL team says it’s problematic that there is no independent mechanism to ensure players are treated fairly.

“Our team liaison was nice, but she had a personal relationship with the coach,” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of appearing disloyal. “So it would have been hard for the players to trust her completely.”

McKinven said his team’s liaison “was a cop who we called when we needed someone to get us out of the drunk tank at 2 a.m.”

The former QJMHL employee, who worked in marketing for the team, says players would sometimes bring up the fact that they hadn’t been paid their $100 bi-weekly stipend.

“They couldn’t complain to anyone because they depend on the team for everything: for their schooling, for their housing, their meals and their ice time. The team held all the cards, the team held these kids’ futures.

“They didn’t fight back, they couldn’t fight back, they’re not trained to do that, they’re trained to stop and go at a whistle. There’s no neutral body to protect these kids. To some owners, they’re basically just commodities.”

 

MONEY AND A UNION

It might not be the NHL, but major junior hockey isn’t operating on a shoestring budget.

You can watch CHL games on television, play as your favourite team on Xbox, eat out of a cereal box with CHL players on it and pay for that cereal with a credit card bearing a junior hockey team logo.

In February, the CHL signed a 10-year broadcasting deal with Rogers Sportsnet to televise 50 games each season.

According to the CHL’s website, junior teams sold about 9 million tickets last season.

Successful franchises such as the Quebec Ramparts and London Knights sell nearly 10,000 tickets to each of their 40 home games. Tickets average about $15 apiece and the team takes a cut of the beer, food and merchandising sold at concession stands.

The NHL also pays teams development fees for each player drafted into the big leagues.

Branch, the CHL’s commissioner, told the Toronto Star in July that “one-third of teams are profitable, one-third are close, and one-third are losing money.”

There’s no way of verifying Branch’s statements about CHL finances because as privately owned businesses, teams don’t have to publicly disclose their earnings.

But it does cost money to train these kids, bus them across the country, pay their billet families and provide their equipment. Some estimates provided by the league say players each receive about $30,000 worth of services from their team per year.

A union and the salary rights it might guarantee could push small-market franchises into financial ruin. But Branch says the argument against a union isn’t financial.

“When it comes to protecting players, nobody does it better than us and we don’t need a third party to support what is best for the players,” Branch told The Gazette. “The players have several layers of support. From their parents to their agent advisers, to their billets, to the person on their team assigned to act independently in the players’ interest (the team liaison). You would hope that, if there is a problem, these people would pick up the phone and call the commissioner’s office. We will step in and take action if necessary.”

Branch added that the league has instituted programs to curtail fighting, concussions, abuse and harassment.

Canada’s largest private-sector labour union, Unifor, is backing a movement to create a CHL players association. Unifor president Jerry Dias says that if the league is going to cry poor, it should open its books and prove it can’t afford to better compensate players.

“Of course there are teams that struggle to get by, but it’s the same in the NHL,” Dias told The Gazette. “That’s why teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs subsidize teams like the Florida Panthers.”

Dias says the CHL should consider revenue sharing, a tool the NHL and every major North American sports league uses to redistribute the league’s earnings to less profitable teams.

But the push to organize a players’ association has gained little traction within the junior hockey world.

Some players have complained about late-night calls and persistent recruiting efforts from alleged union organizers. Unifor’s involvement with an alleged fraudster paid to recruit QJMHL players into a union last season has not helped its case.

Last month, Dias met with Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn to discuss the issue.

“The crux of this is, are these players employees?” said Gene Chiarello, a former major junior player and employment lawyer who was at the meeting.

Under law, an employee is compensated for a service and acts under the direct control of managers. That was the metric used by a federal labour relations board in the United States, last March, when it ruled that collegiate athletes were employees and could legally form unions. The labour relations board determined that scholarships are a form of compensation.

“You were always abiding by the team’s rules, even when you weren’t at the rink,” Chiarello said. “If you wanted to go out on a Thursday night and knock a few back, well you better do it before 10 p.m. because there’s a curfew. You’re always under the thumb of the boss, the coach. Hey, that’s part of the game; you always need that figure, that power structure to keep things on track. But it was a job, a full-time job, make no mistake about it.”

Chiarello spent four seasons goaltending for the London Knights, setting a club record for wins. He loved his time with the team but said that, despite the league’s best intentions, players’ rights often fell to the wayside.

“There’s a couple of guys per team that are earmarked to make it big, but that’s two guys out of 24,” he said.

“These young guys are being given a tremendous opportunity — it’s true, they are. But opportunity is not a currency. When you’re 20 or 22 and your hockey days have come and gone, and you’re sitting in your first year of university, you’re looking back and you’re saying, ‘Oh I had a great opportunity.’

“Well, that opportunity does not pay the bills.”

 

← Back to Newsletter