Tonight’s Halifax Mooseheads’ game—a late-March contest in the first round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs—is a sellout. Third in a row? Fourth? Who’s counting? We should.
Start with this: a playoff sellout at Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre puts 10,595 bums in seats at close to $20 a bum. Do the math. That’s north of $200,000 revenue before the puck drops. Then tote up the beers poured, hot dogs consumed, team souvenirs sold.
You can outfit yourself in a handsome, cream-coloured 25th anniversary Mooseheads’ jersey for just $129.99 plus tax. Top that with a team-logoed toque with pom for another $30.
A percentage of all those ca-chinks find their way into the team’s bank account. Along with revenue from other fast -flowing cash streams: rink board advertisements, a share of a multi-year, multimedia broadcast rights deal between the Canadian Hockey League and TSN, cash back from the NHL for each player who signs a major league contract ($60-75,000 per player signed), even royalties that sports video game makers pay to use players’ images. (We’ll come back to those.)
For the Mooseheads’ organization, the pot gets even sweeter, no matter how the team does in these first-stage Quebec league playoffs. Halifax hosts this year’s Memorial Cup (May 17-26), a weeklong, nationally broadcast junior hockey championship event. It will, of course, generate even more revenue.
Make no mistake. Major Junior hockey is major business in Canada.
But these days, there is a fat, angry elephant at centre ice—a $180-million class-action lawsuit targeting the owners that asks: Who benefits?
The answer is not your averaged teenaged hockey star, 95 per cent of whose big-league dreams will “reality-out” before they “age-out” of junior hockey at 20.
Officially, team owners consider the talented young men the rest of us pay to watch “amateur student athletes,” not employees of their lucrative entertainment businesses. In the opinion of the country’s 52 team owners—as well as compliant provincial governments—that should excuse them from paying players even minimum wage.
They claim players’ benefit: room and board for those away from home, university funding for some grads and what Gilles Courteau, the Quebec league commissioner, calls “pocket money,” small weekly allowances during the season.
But the owners pocket the difference. And that’s not pocket change.
Playing hockey is a full-time job for these teenagers, who must juggle school and adolescent life with practises, off-ice training, meetings, games, travel, promotional appearances, autograph signings, etc. If they don’t do as they’re told, when and for as long as they’re told, noted Lukas Walter, a former player with Saint John Seadogs, these non-employees risk “being dismissed.” In an affidavit, Walter says he routinely put in more than 40 hours a week, as many as 70 during road trips.
Walter not only didn’t earn minimum wage but—because he signed away his rights to his image in order to play—had to spend $69.99 of his own money to purchase the EA hockey video game in which his image appears!
Walter is part of that class action lawsuit filed in 2014 by more than 400 current and former junior players now working its way through the courts.
As Ken Campbell, a senior writer with The Hockey News, says, it’s time owners abandoned their “archaic practices” and got “on the right side of history.” Until they do, he adds, “there are those who will continue to challenge them.”
In January, former players launched yet another class action, this one claiming owners “failed to enforce protocols for handling concussions and failed to provide players, parents and billet families with relevant health information about concussions.”
Canada’s game is no longer just played on ice.