By Vicky Grygar
Dear Mr. Branch,
What is going on with major junior hockey? No, seriously, what the $%&! is going on with major junior hockey?
We know each other. Over the past several years I have sent you multiple correspondences, and our names have appeared in many of the same newspaper articles. We share a commitment to the wellbeing of CHL players. We believe in supporting young, elite athletes. You are an honest person–someone who is attuned to the needs and vulnerabilities of your players. But many of those within, and outside, of the hockey world have not witnessed you acting that way.
I am contacting you today in a form you seem to prefer: an open letter. I’m asking you the following (familiar) questions in an open letter because whenever they are posed to you otherwise, you refuse to provide straightforward answers, let alone answers at all. We’re in the dark here.
Without answers and communication, and with deceptive information appearing in the media, people are getting increasingly frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, the CHL has continued to do as they’ve always done, even when it seems irrational to do so. The possibility of the CHL taking the initiative to adapt its existing business model to the realities of contemporary society is becoming more remote. All signs seem to be pointing to disaster, Mr. Branch–I sincerely don’t think that’s what you want to happen.
Can you please clarify the following?
1) You and I both know that the reimbursement plan CHL players receive is insufficient. You’ve attempted to address this issue before, just last year, by replacing the word ‘stipend’ with ‘reimbursement’, and altering its distribution from weekly to monthly. Many individuals have insisted on a league-wide increase to a more appropriate minimum.
Now you’re speaking to the media and saying CHL players are thoroughly supported and that there is no need for improvement because “nobody does it better”. Your interviews have included absurd claims that every player can see through. I’ll spare you a catalogue of the colourful responses I’ve heard.
So, which is it? You are portraying the league as an angelic, invincible and morally grounded institution, yet you have failed to adjust player reimbursement for over 35 years, as if these players are merely cheap cogs in a machine.
I know that’s not how you see them. Can you please just confirm your longstanding commitment to the wellbeing of your players and admit that player reimbursement must go up? Is it really your position that the amount they currently receive is fair? I can’t believe that’s the case. And if not now, after 35 years, when?
2) You know how the education package is structured. We spent over a year (indirectly) discussing the relationship of import players to the rest of the package, as well as eligibility restrictions players must adhere to—something the media have not yet accurately portrayed, largely due to your own knowing misstatements.
You know that, unless the structure of the education package fundamentally changes, proposed amendments to player benefits are meaningless. Will you state that publicly and stop focusing on the millions of dollars the league spends on players’ tuition each year? This is a dishonest message, and you know that.
3) The numbers you’ve more or less relayed to the public regarding league revenue are flawed in many ways. You know that, because team and league financial records are inaccessible. When revenues have been discussed with you, many highly acclaimed journalists, including Stephen Brunt, freely admitted the problems with the way the league is financially operating, and the problem with player benefits more generally.
The distortions are obvious. Journalists, lawyers, bankers, researchers, alumni and your very own players have all easily exposed the ridiculousness of your assertions. I know you to be a person uninterested in deception. Please provide the necessary context for the financial health of the league or stop misguiding us.
I believe that the issues the CHL is currently encountering can be settled relatively easily if the league simply does the things you’ve known for years it needs to do.
Increase player reimbursement. It’s been 35 years!
Stop using whatever terms suit your needs to define players. In 2009, Hockey Canada bylaws defined CHL players as “professional”, in 2011 this changed to “non-professional”, most recently I have heard you adamantly use the words “amateur” and “student-athlete”. Pick one—stick with it.
(TIP: Just call them “major junior” players. Despite your thesaurus trickery, this is what everyone calls them anyways. So, do us all a favour and quit reinventing the dictionary, it’s not necessary. “Major junior” works—trust us on this one.)
Finally, stop applying restrictions to the education packages—anyone with a moral compass knows that’s wrong.
If I could take your word that these things would happen without public pressure, I would. Unfortunately, this is not the case. You and I both agree that unionization is not an appropriate response. As with ALL organizations, unions suffer from their own structural deficiencies. Moreover, the way in which Unifor attempted to play “CHL hero” last summer was disreputable and out of line with basic union principles. Like yourself, Jerry Dias has much to be ashamed of. You are both individuals in high positions of power—yet have failed/refused to use this power in an honest and impactful way.
It should come as no surprise that I have a high degree of skepticism regarding the CHL’s self-capacity to implement necessary changes. This cynicism is certainly not mine alone.
The CHL’s attitude breeds rigidity and an arrogant disregard for the changing nature of sport. Complacency is not a recipe for a competitive, healthy organization and you know this. If the league continues to ignore the rapidly changing circumstances of business and sport—then expect to (further) go the way of the dinosaur. Adapting may be difficult, but it is not impossible.
Mr. Branch, you occupy a position that gives you the ability to implement overdue changes and produce positive results. The only thing that remains is whether or not you are willing to do so. As always, what’s right is right.
University of Toronto
 I highly advise against any combination of “amateur” and “student-athlete” for two main reasons:
1) The NCAA has relied upon amateurism for decades longer than you. As per NCAA bylaws, remuneration of any kind directly violates the rules of amateurism (e.g., CHL reimbursement plan). But, none of this really matters anyways considering that just a few months ago, in the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA case, Senior District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA has historically used amateurism in a malleable fashion, sometimes in significant and contradictory ways. In a court of law, the “amateurism” defense is no longer viable. Please take note—this will only serve you in the long run.
2) The CHL is a hockey league, not an institution of higher learning. You know, perhaps better than anyone, that players are not governed by any stipulations requiring them to attend school. As such, many of them don’t. It goes without saying then, that calling them “student-athletes” is also a grave misrepresentation.