Lawyers drawing lines in the sand in CHL lawsuit, but what does it mean?

While kids are trying to enjoy a game, here we are, communities, fans, writers and lawyers trying to decide what’s best for them.

When you grow up playing hockey, you’re taught to be humble, respectful of the game.

Those unwritten rules, more particularly the ones that govern all that is holy in junior hockey, are being challenged.

It all changed for the Canadian Hockey League when a group of former players indicated that the time they spent in the league was work. That they deserved to be paid, and current players should be paid at least minimum wage.

Now more than 400 current and former players are part of a lawsuit where certification is being heard this week in Calgary. A judge ruled that all 42 teams from both the WHL and OHL will need to release financial statements as soon as personal information included in them is redacted — likely by next Wednesday.

That decision will alter an entire universe of the sport in our country, for better or worse. In the days to come a judge will decide.

Many want to protect the integrity of the sport — to keep things the way they’ve always been, let the players enjoy the spoils of being a 17-year-old, and a recognizable celebrity in Moose Jaw.

Well they don’t get paid on a day-to-day basis. They get fed well for the 35 games a season. They travel to and have a warm bed to sleep in, in a city that likely isn’t their hometown.

Players receive a collection of $200 hockey sticks and get to play a game while their friends study Shakespeare, quadratics or the laws of motion. On top of all that, a golden ticket of sorts, free education for every year they play in the league (or so the sketchy details of the education package of the Canadian Hockey League goes).

Is this process a venture of indentured servitude? The more I describe the benefits, the more it sounds like it.

Even though the players willingly enter this agreement of course, but those terms are locked deep in a dark vault.

There’s very little momentum on the other coin, if these player agreements are in fact employment contracts, then the players by law deserve to be paid, future promises and incentives aside.

The big, bad CHL is ready to make this the hill they die on, an onerous debate that will likely be locked up in years of litigation before any real decision comes down.

Can teams like the Red Deer Rebels afford to pay players? When the books are open next week, which undoubtedly opens the league and franchise to a world of criticism, the public will find out. If they can and haven’t been, will players rebel? How bad will it look when franchises that claim to financially be on the edge, are actually making money off players playing for a pittance?

I think the impact will come in the next few years in pockets of the game, where there’s a clear divide in CHL locker rooms. The kids who wanted to get paid versus the ones who just wanted things to stay the way they are. Twelve current Red Deer Rebels are part of the lawsuit. Names are not being released for obvious reasons, but that’s 12 players on one side, eight on the other.

We’re not in there, but kids are vicious, and they talk. They know who’s in and who’s out. I’m not saying that changes what happens on the ice, but it could.

It’s rare the day when a kid complains about his time in the CHL and I don’t think there’s too many people out there that wouldn’t trade a textbook for a stick in high school given the opportunity. It’s a privilege for these kids, and it may very well be a good life for a few years. Unfortunately, that’s no longer up for debate. The fight now, is with the law.

Byron Hackett is an Advocate sports writer. He can be reached at byron.hackett@bprda.wpengine.com

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