Tuesday, October 30, 2012

CHLPA: The World of Tomorrow


In the future, hockey will be played by robots thus eliminating concerns over injuries and the escalating salary costs associated with the sport. Fans will have an unobstructed view of the game because the boards will be replaced by a force field. Players, or Robo-Skaters, will be controlled by remote control not unlike the boxers in the 2011 movie Real Steel (which I highly recommend).

But if it sounds like you won't recognize hockey in the 22nd century, don't worry. We'll still have the trapezoid, touch icing and a clone of Don Cherry. 

OK, I just wanted to have a bit of fun before today's write up turns more serious. The above might sound crazy but I'm sure there will be plenty of readers today who feel the same way with what comes next. Of course I'm referring to how the hockey world could change if the CHLPA has their way. 

The artwork above is by Cloister.deviantart.com

Before I go any further, I want to point to a few articles that came out yesterday which have helped advanced the conversation I have been having here lately

Adam Wodon at College Hockey News echoed my statements yesterday about how the NCAA community is already mixed on the topic of allowing CHL players to retain their eligibility. Well worth the read. 

Greg Drinnan spoke about the CHL's top ranked team and with several players about their thoughts on the proposed CHLPA. Included in the quotes is Dylan Willick who was contacted by the "union" after we spoke with him recently on The Pipeline Show. (Taking Note)  

James Mirtle from The Globe and Mail published the names of several people behind the CHLPA's curtain. Check that out here. 

Corey Pronman from Hockey Prospectus read yesterday's CHLPA story here and was reminded of some work he did a while back. He drafted up a 3-part feature on how he would change the structure of hockey leagues purely from the perspective of development. It's an excellent example of outside the box thinking but it's a massive revamping of hockey as we know it. Don't take that as me being positive or negative, you just need to have a very open mind. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Alright, if you've arrived at Coming Down the Pipe today and haven't read the first three parts of this series, then stop. Go back and read these first in order: Warning Shot, Endgame and NCAA Eligibility. If you don't, you'll be like the idiot standing in line for 'Jedi' who has never seen 'Empire' or 'Star Wars'. (and yes I know it's 'A New Hope' but I went geek enough using the Star Wars analogy, I didn't need to go Full Wookie... Never go Full Wookie).

Lastly, please remember: I am not a member or a representative of the proposed union. In fact, I have actually been one of the more outspoken voices in the media questioning the very legitimacy of the group. That said, what follows is an explanation of events as it was outlined to me by the CHLPA and should not be taken as either my own personal opinion (except where plainly obvious) or an endorsement of the "union" from me.

OK so now that you're caught up you know that the proposed Canadian Hockey League Players Association (CHLPA) has:

- used the threat of legal action in an attempt to stimulate face to face negotiations with CHL President David Branch and Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson over improved educational packages for CHL players. (Plan A)

- taken the position that if Plan A fails, Plan B will be put in motion. Plan B being the legal action to bring forth actual employee level salaries to CHL players in part so that they can eventually pay for their own post-CHL education.    

- have been actively negotiating with the NCAA over what steps would need to be taken to ensure that CHL players could retain eligibility for NCAA hockey. Furthermore, the CHLPA believes that the steps outlined by the NCAA have already been taken after discovering that Hockey Canada altered the wording in their bylaws to describe the CHL as "non-professional".

I ended yesterday by beginning to outline the vision the CHLPA has of what the CHL would, and should, look like. With the NCAA now, according to the CHLPA, satisfied that the stipend isn't an issue (as long as it's called 'expenses') and that Hockey Canada considers the CHL as a non-professional league, there is only one small (huge) obstacle left standing in the way - CHL players that have signed NHL entry level contracts and have been returned to the league by the NHL club. 

But remember, spokesman Derek Clarke of the CHLPA insisted that the latter shouldn't be an issue anymore thanks to Hockey Canada's new designation of the CHL as non-professional.  In his view, any player who has been signed by the NHL team must move on to pro hockey the same way a college player has to.

"When a player signs a pro contract, he can’t come back to the amateur league," Clarke declared, "He should be entitled to go and earn the wage in the American Hockey League or somewhere in the farm system of the National Hockey League teams where they pay those players to play."  

To me, that's a mighty big change because now we're talking about altering the NHL-CHL agreement. However, as my TPS partner Dean Millard pointed out today, the window for that change to happen is right now with the NHL/NHLPA CBA negotiations (allegedly) going on. 

Currently, NHL teams have 2 years of exclusive negotiating rights with a player after they have drafted him. Many players are signed to their entry level deals well before that expiry date and returned to the CHL for two or even three years to develop. 

The terms of that entry level contract don't kick in until the player has left the CHL so NHL clubs can keep a signed prospect in junior until his eligibility expires with no years coming off his NHL deal.

The CHLPA has a problem with that. They especially disagree with the rule preventing signed CHL players from entering the American Hockey League until they are 20-years-old.

"Restricting the movement of a player between the ages of 18-20 is illegal," Clarke told me during our conversation on Saturday.

I asked how the CHLPA would try and convince the NHL not to return players to the CHL so that it would then be free of pro contracts and all those in the league would retain their NCAA eligibility.  But interestingly, Clarke doesn't look at it from the NHL end.

"I think it’s up to the CHL to accept them," Clarke countered, "The CHL doesn’t have to accept them and if it’s an amateur league then they wouldn’t accept those players."
Wouldn't and even couldn't if indeed Clarke's position on amateur status for the CHL is correct. But he said 'wouldn't' and we proceeded from there. I wondered why he felt the CHL wouldn't have an interest in having signed players back considering how much better they make the league.
"We would hope that they wouldn’t accept them because having a handful of players... and what are we talking about here realistically in the course of one year?" he asked, "How many players go up and down? Is it 5 at the most? How many guys do you know last year that were on two-way contracts who went up, played 5 games and came back down?"
And that's where I got confused. Was he talking about all the players who have signed entry level contracts or just the guys who began the year in the NHL, played up to 9 games and were returned to their junior teams? Obviously, guys in the former category far outnumber the latter and it's a huge difference. 
I wanted clarification: are we talking about all the players who have signed entry level contacts but are back in the CHL?
"Well yeah. The guys that sign the entry level contracts get a signing bonus and usually end up playing right?"
"OK but there's a lot more than 5 guys in the CHL who have signed their first NHL deal," I countered, "I mean half the guys drafted in the first round this past June have already signed."
That seemed to catch him off guard a bit but only for a minute. 
"Yeah they're signed but those guys are going to end up playing in the NHL or have a signing bonus," he replied, "The other guys that have signed their signing bonus should go to the American Hockey League or to the IHL where they could develop with professional players."
I sat in silence for a minute. That answer made zero sense to me; you don't "sign a signing bonus", you receive a bonus for signing the contract. He seemed to believe that it was a forgone conclusion that every player chosen in the 1st round of the 2012 draft, and signed since June, was going to play in the NHL this year had there not been a lockout.
I disagreed. One could make a case for a handful of them; Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart... maybe Zemgus Girgensons but surely not ALL of the 2012 draft class that have signed. I also pointed out that the IHL doesn't exist anymore.
"Well there’s the American Hockey League or another league there, a semi-pro league, Southern California has some teams that play or the East Coast League... wherever they want to send them," he said, "If the NHL sent them to those (pro) leagues, that would be fine. Leave the amateur status here for the players that are [in the CHL]."
"Why would the CHL want to jeopardize 1400 players for the betterment of what, 5? Maybe 10?" he repeated, "Even if it's 20 players, why would [the CHL] do that when those players would be better off served playing in a pro league and developing with pros?"
If you took the time to read Corey Pronman's proposal via the links I provided above you'd see that the CHLPA's feeling on this mirror his in a lot of ways. I had to press the point though that there are a lot more than 5 or 10 players in the CHL who have signed their entry level contract. 
I don't know if anyone has the exact count but would it be outlandish to suggest that there is at least one such player, on average, for every team in the CHL? That would be 60 guys right there.  
The Edmonton Oil Kings have 8 drafted players on the team, at least 2 of which have signed their NHL Entry level contract with 4 others who will likely be signed before the two-year deadline their NHL team faces to do so. So realistically, 6 Oil Kings would not be allowed to play in the CHLPA's version of the CHL by the end of the 2012-13 season.
6 from one team, not 5-10 in the entire CHL like Clarke guesstimated. 
I'm sure there are a handful of teams that don't have anyone that falls into that category. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't believe Kootenay has a player on the roster this year with ties to a NHL club let alone a contract. (Czerwonka and Leach were drafted but unsigned so are now free agents). 
But on average across the entire 60-team CHL, would it be fair to estimate that there are 3 drafted guys per team who are already signed or need to be before the end of the current season? If so, then we're talking about 180 guys. Maybe more. 
Clarke considered that for a moment. 
"My question then would be if there is a large number of [already signed] players, where would those players be better served to develop and where would those players want to play?" he asked, "In Peterborough or in a professional league where they are actually one step closer to the NHL? Look at the AHL, why not have those players go there?"
Photo: Andy Devlin
I would argue that NHL teams wouldn't want to send many of their signed prospects to the AHL because they aren't physically ready for that level. Is New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix, a 100-point player last season in the WHL, ready to skate for the Connecticut Whale in the AHL? I believe most would say 'NO'.
But I understand the point Clarke was making about the rules preventing players from moving up to the pro ranks where they could make some money. I think if you asked most 19-year-old players if they would prefer to be assigned to the ECHL or back to junior, the majority would take the pay cheque
"What happens if a kid is a free agent because he didn’t get drafted at the age of 18 or 19, and then all of a sudden got an offer or was good enough and he decided to go somewhere and get paid for it? Well he’s not able to right now," said Clarke, "If he wants to go to the AHL or to Europe, right now he’s restricted."
I'm trying to come up with an example of an undrafted 19-year-old that European teams have wanted to sign but I can't think of one. That's not to say that there haven't been players in the position Clarke is describing, just that I am drawing a blank. If someone can think of a guy, please post it in the comment section.          
Players drafted out of any league in the world, except for the CHL, are not subject to the 20-year-old rule with the AHL. Those cases are few and far between but Ladislav Smid is one example of a European who was able to do so. USHL or US-NTDP draftees like John Moore (CLB), Zemgus Girgensons (BUF) and Jeremy Morin (CHI) are recent North American examples. 
The CHLPA would like the same thing for players drafted out of the CHL. In fact, because of their quest to retain NCAA eligibility, being able to move signed CHL players to the AHL would become a necessity.
I asked Clarke if he had any concerns in regard to the ramifications a new CHL would have on the USHL and Canadian Junior A Hockey Leagues in Canada. I suggested that the changes the CHLPA are pushing for are basically those that tier I leagues (the term tier II disappeared some years ago) like the BCHL, AJHL and USHL operate with now. I suggested his version of the CHLPA would destroy those leagues. 
"Why’s that?" he asked me. 
"If you take all the signed players out of the CHL to retain NCAA eligibility for the rest then you are esentially turning it into a tier I league, like the USHL or those in the the CJHL," I replied.
He didn't see it that way and explained why. 
"I don’t agree with that, not in the least," he countered, "The Canadian Hockey League prides itself on development of players and it would provide better opportunities for some players. How many kids out of tier II now go to NCAA colleges? Hundreds."
Putting aside for a minute that "tier II" is an outdated term (it's just Jr. A in Canada and the USHL in the States), I didn't understand the point he was going for. 
"Of course the NCAA is full of players from those leagues, that's what those leagues are for," I said.
"Right. So those kids now who are on the bubble in tier II, if they moved up to an ECHL, you’d have a pretty good league," he said, "Because there are kids that have gone on, first round draft picks playing out of the tier II group, not as many as the CHL, but you would push those kids up and provide more opportunity and more development for some of the other kids that are coming on the road."
Am I the only one who finds that explanation confusing? A first round pick from Jr.A, let's use Joe Colborne as an example, a 1st round pick by Boston out of the AJHL. I think he is suggesting that a guy like Colborne would "graduate" from the AJHL to the new CHL where he would play in a better league and still retain his NCAA eligibility if need be down the road. 
Whether a CHL with the 180 or so signed players removed would still be considered a better league than the USHL is very debateable.
If you pull 180 players out of the CHL and replace them with the best 180 players from the CJHL and the USHL, how weak does that leave those other leagues? I can't see how that wouldn't be catastrophic for them.
I mentioned earlier that Dean Millard pointed to the current CBA negitiations. With the far reaching affects the CHLPA's proposed changes would have on junior hockey, you know that the NHLPA and the NHL would have to get involved. I don't know if the CHLPA has talked to anyone from either organization.
Would NHL teams have any interest in filling the AHL with teenagers? Might they instead move to adopt a 4-year rule, instead of 2-years, for signing drafted players just as it exists currently with NCAA players?
If changes aren't made before the new NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement is in place, it might be another 7 years before the window of opportunity comes around again for the CHLPA.  
Building an Education Fund
"- Establish and manage a CHLPA education fund for the players with the players' education as the main priority". (CHLPA's proposed CBA)
According to the CHLPA, the driving goal around their entire mandate is finding ways to provide players with a better education package. The quote above comes from their website where people can see their proposed CBA.  
Executive Director Georges Laraque is on record as seeking a 4 to 5-year window for players to access the CHL education package, increased from the current 12-18 months. The proposed CBA outlined on the CHLPA's website, however, differs from what Laraque said.
"Abolish the 12-18 month time limit a player has to utlize the current scholarship packages offered by the three leagues, making them available for life with no time restrictions."
It's a major difference but either way it means a escalation in costs.
Clarke also suggested that currently, Europeans don't have an education package. He cited the case of a Czech defenceman named Milan Doczy who played for the Owen Sound Attack from 2007-2010.
"I’ve got a Czech kid that played in Owen Sound for 3 years, signed a contract, came to Canada and couldn’t speak a word of English as a 17-year-old," said Clarke, "He wanted to go to school after (his OHL career) and Owen Sound said no and the CHL said no." 
"He went back to the Czech Republic but then he came back and now he’s playing at Brock University (CIS) because the Czech community in St. Catherines supported the kid and paid for his school," Clarke stated, "Brock University subsidized the kid because they thought he was getting screwed. The legal team from Brock got involved with it and the CHL said ‘if you want to sue us then sue us, we’re not paying it’." 
Clarke says he has documentation from Brock University, the player and his billet family to support his claim. 
"You’ve got a kid playing for three years in your league and you refuse to pay for his schooling just because he’s a European? So what? You paid for him when he was going to high school," Clarke said, "He didn’t get drafted into the NHL so you don’t get your [development money] so you’re not paying for anything else for him? That’s horrible." 
If true, it's a disappointing case and hopefully a rare one. I think most European players who end their CHL careers without advancing to the NHL or AHL likely return back home to play professionally but that's a gut feeling on my part and not based on research.   
Extending the window for players to tap into their education money and creating new plans for a few Europeans would mean an increase in cost. Critics of the CHLPA want to know exactly how they expect small market teams to survive when they are already in financial trouble. 
The CHLPA insists that they have the plan that would easily cover the education fund and do so in a way that would actually benefit small market teams. It starts with the owners not paying any more than they do today.
"The only thing that we’re after, and we keep saying that it’s nothing from the ownership’s pocket, is a $1.50 a ticket surcharge for education," Clarke told me last week, "Not off the ticket, on top of the ticket. I still don’t think that the fan would mind paying $1.50, about 8 cents a player, knowing that it was going directly to a player’s education package."
The plan has another level to it which is certainly notable. Not only would it not be an added expense for the owners but, according to the CHLPA, it could become a tax write off.
"The owners could collect it, the CHLPA would set up a charitable arm which would allow the ownership to take a deduction for the money that was there," Clarke explained, "So the owners would actually be saving money."
Revenue Sharing 
As for the security of the small market franchises, the CHLPA believe the solution to that is obvious and that the NHL already has the model in place. 
"We also have a package about a revenue sharing plan," he began, "Everybody is scared about the small market teams struggling but if that was truly the case, if you took what we said was $160M in ticket revenue and the TV package, the marketing and the sponsorship, your Memorial Cup and everything and just said that at minimum that was $180M dollars. We estimate that it’s closer to $250M but let’s say $180; that’s $3M per team across the board."
Now we know that's why the CHLPA spent a weekend in September Tweeting their estimated ticket revenue numbers to the masses. Clarke admitted to me that at that time they had not taken into account cheaper season ticket packages available so it threw off their figures. That was pointed out by many media folks around the CHL.   
I have no way of knowing how accurate these new CHLPA calculations are but I would welcome someone in the know from the CHL to fill me in.   
"I don’t think there is a team in the league that has a $3M budget unless the coach is making $300-400K a year and then maybe," said Clarke, "If you had that type of revenue sharing where everybody pooled their resources, your small market teams would become a lot better off financially."
I don't know how eager the bulk of owners would be for revenue sharing but I can imagine that there would be some for it and some against it. Clarke thinks it would also serve to even the playing field when it comes to the CHL Import Draft.
"It’s also going to stop teams like Quebec and Windsor and Vancouver and Calgary, all of these rich teams, from allegedly paying European players over and above," he said, "It would take it right out of their pockets." 
"Owners will still make money, small market teams won’t be in jeopardy. What’s wrong with that?" 
"Growing the Game"
Clarke outlined a number of other ideas that the CHLPA is prepared to suggest to David Branch and Bob Nicholson that they feel could generate new income from which more education money could be derived. 
"Through the Hockey Canada endorsement programs and their sponsorship packages and external events that they are using which could account towards revenue sharing amongst the league," he said, "Such as the Canada-Russia Challenge this year in Halifax. There’s revenue there that could come to the CHL education package." 
He wasn't done there.
"Maybe there are other events during the course of the year that could be put in," Clarke continued, "An additional all-star game or maybe some interleague play."
All with the noble idea of creating extra income that doesn't exist now to funnel towards the CHLPA's education fund. Want another idea? Here's one that's bound to get a reaction: 
"Maybe a round robin type format during the season where the top 4 teams meet in one city," he said, "The first place in the WHL, OHL and the QMJHL and one host team." 
Sound a bit familiar? Is he suggesting a mid-season...
"You could have a mini-Memorial Cup to create some additional revenue," he said as if reading my mind, "All these things are on the table with our packages on how the league could grow."
Coming Next: I'm wrapping up the series with YOUR thoughts. A number of emails have already come in (guy@thepipelineshow.com) and I'll post them and try to answer those that are questions. If you've got concerns or comments to make now that you have heard the CHLPA's platform, let me know.  I'll give it a few days to allow for more reader input.
I'll also offer up my own opinion, for what it's worth, on the CHLPA's proposals and maybe offer a counter idea or two.


Jess Rubenstein said...


What a great report on your part as the most frustrating thing about the CHLPA remains their choosing to keep their main backers hidden.

Someone has to be funding these efforts for the CHLPA. Sure you can get lawyers to work for free but there are tons of expenses that have to be paid for.

There has to be somebody putting out the dollar to cover expenses so who is that person(s)?

Anonymous said...

Philladelphia tried to sign Czech forward Thomas Hyka after training camp after the 2011 draft but couldn't because of European eligibility issues, he was taken in 2012 by LA