For decades, detractors have accused the Canadian hockey league of exploiting its teenaged workforce. But more and more, the league is doing right by its players.

Almost 10 years ago, Olivier Fortier seemed as conflicted as any 16-year-old possibly could. Like a few hundred teenagers across Canada and the U.S., the native of Quebec City had signed on with a Canadian Hockey League club, which he saw as his best chance of landing in the NHL someday. In Fortier’s case, it was the Drummondville Voltigeurs, who traded him to the Rimouski Océanic midway through his rookie season. Fortier had himself made a bigger trade—or, at least, a bigger trade-off. “I was in an elevated math-science program back home, but that program isn’t available in Rimouski,” he said in 2007. “You can do high school and CEGEP here, and the school is good. [But] I thought, ‘You’re going to have to give up to play the game.’”

Most kids have a Pavlovian reaction to getting drafted into the CHL, but Fortier didn’t. Five minutes into a conversation with him, you realize he’s fully dialled in, precociously self-aware. Those enriched studies might have set him up for medical school or maybe engineering, but he was going to sacrifice them to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. If he’d been able to play at home in Quebec City, if he’d landed in Gatineau and crossed the river into Ottawa, if he’d wound up in Halifax, he could have found a match to the math-science program. It just didn’t play out that way.

You probably don’t know Fortier’s name and have put it together that he’s not making NHL millions. If I told you that neither math nor science figure in his future, you’d already be moving ahead to the presumption that he made a bad career move in putting hockey in front of education. That says something about the prevailing narrative surrounding major-junior hockey: a pot of gold or a dead end at 21; superstardom or a cautionary tale.

But in major junior hockey a decade isn’t just a generation—it’s at least two. And things have changed a lot since Fortier’s time, on and off the ice.

School Daze
Olivier Fortier had to put his education on hold 10 years ago to play in Rimouski. Today the education options across the CHL are much better.

Whether you’re among the thousands in the crowd, watching games and highlights on television or just tracking it from afar, you think you know the CHL, the best teenage hockey league in the world. And you think you know the lives of its players, many barely 16, who’ve moved away from home like Fortier did a decade ago. Many have had to leave their provinces, French-Canadian kids landing on the East Coast, a Newfoundlander deep in Quebec, a teen from Vancouver shipping off to the Prairies.

Many have had to cross the border, kids from Ontario or the West going to the U.S. or vice versa. And you think you know the grind, with exhibitions, regular season and playoffs, often more than 90 games a season; a day off from practice per week; thousands of miles on the bus. It’s development by ordeal. And in the end, the very best will get a call to the NHL, and only the best among that group get a contract. Critics of the CHL say it’s a brutal system. More than 300 former and current players with lawyers as their wingers are looking to square their accounts or form a de facto union for CHLers as a way of protecting the teenage workers’ rights. On behalf of the players, the lawyers filed civil suits in Calgary and Toronto with the hope that their case will be certified as a class action. If successful, the players will be looking for compensation for the time with their teams, effectively back-pay based on at least the minimum wage.

You think you know the lives of CHL players and the trade-offs they’ve made to pursue their dream, their opportunities in education being among them. The late J.P. Parise often told the story of being sat down by the GM of the St. Catharines Black Hawks and told that he should drop out of school so he could focus on hockey. That mindset has shifted a bit over the decades—open hostility to education gave way to ambivalence and neglect. “When I was in junior, I don’t know how many of the older guys were in school, and in Cornwall, we really didn’t have university available,” says Doug Gilmour, GM of the Kingston Frontenacs.

“You think you know the CHL, but most of that is based on what you see on the ice, not what happens away from the rink and after the cheering stops.”

That, however, was three decades ago, and since then, the business has evolved. The CHL had reason to fear losing top talents to NCAA hockey, and teams realized they had to sell players and parents on the league. Thus they offered to pick up the costs of the players’ schooling, at first while they played with the team and later with guarantees for tuition and books after their junior eligibility expired. But even in the new millennium, certain programs were very spotty with regard to the books. Just as the CHL recognized the image problems it had with discipline on the ice and addressed it with near-zero tolerance, levying heavy suspensions, the league has taken strong measures on the players’ education.

“We’ve mandated that every team has an academic adviser on staff,” CHL president David Branch says. “And the education packages have been expanded—they’re uniform now, and extend not just to university but to community college, trade school or training for EMS or firefighting school. And we’ve taken the administering of education packages out of the teams’ hands and now everything is done by the league—a player who moves from one team to another doesn’t have to go chasing after two different franchises for what’s fairly owed him.” It has also spared GMs and coaches from accusations, not always unfounded, that they might put their bottom lines ahead of a player’s best interests, that they might not push him to keep up his marks to avoid being on the hook later for his school costs.

The CHL initiatives seem to be having a significant effect in improving the lives of young players in the game and after their careers have run their courses. According to the commissioners of the respective leagues, 52 percent of WHL players and 49 percent of OHLers make use of the scholarship fund. In the WHL, fully 35 percent of active players are enrolled in post-secondary courses. The commitment to the players’ education is coming at a significant and escalating price: The OHL scholarship funds jumped from $1.64-million in 2012 to $2.9-million in 2016 and the WHL from $1.7-million in 2012 to $2.1-million last year. Those numbers loom large considering that approximately half the teams in the WHL and OHL don’t break even in a given season.

You think you know the CHL, but most of that is based on what you see on the ice, not what happens away from the rink and after the cheering stops. You might label the CHL as a development league intending the obvious—that it develops elite hockey talent. Still, it would be a sorry enterprise if that was all it developed. What follows here are voices of those who might have thought growth and development were over when the whistle blew on their junior days, but soon figured out that it was only the game that was at an end.

Student and the game
Bobby Smith went on to a long NHL career after major junior before returning to school to get his MBA.

Back in the late ’70s, Bobby Smith was an outlier: at once a scoring sensation and an accomplished university student. “They literally had to create an academic award to give him because there wasn’t anything recognizing schoolwork,” Branch says.

Smith rang up 192 points with the Ottawa 67’s in ’78 and was the first-overall pick of the Minnesota North Stars. When he signed, he put the books on the shelf, but at the end of his 15-year NHL career, he went back to school, earning his MBA from the University of Minnesota. It wasn’t a surprise when the Nova Scotia native bought the Halifax Mooseheads in 2003. Nor was it a surprise that his program put a premium on academics from day one. “When you’re recruiting players, you have to be able to look parents in the eye and tell them their son is going to be in good hands,” Smith says. “It isn’t and shouldn’t be enough to say we’ll make him a better player. It has to be about putting him in a position to grow as a person.”

By Smith’s estimate, 15 players on the Mooseheads team that won the Memorial Cup in 2013 were taking university-level courses. He admits that the number is somewhat skewed by the cycle of the junior-hockey business. “We were making a push, so we went out and acquired older players, a lot of 19-year-olds,” Smith says. But the numbers are even more impressive when you take into consideration the fact that the players who weren’t taking university courses that year were still in high school—Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Zach Fucale among them.

Matthew Boudreau and Luca Ciampini weren’t preoccupied with school when Smith’s Mooseheads drafted them in the 2009 and 2010 drafts. Both were looking at playing professionally when they graduated from the junior ranks. For Ciampini, the path seemed clear. Halifax selected him second overall, which almost amounts to having your ticket punched to the NHL. Boudreau was a third-rounder, 49th overall. He faced one challenge to making it: He was just five-foot-seven at age 15. He was going to have to literally grow into being a prospect. On draft pedigrees, stats and laurels, though, both had reason to get their hopes up.

Boudreau was the second-highest goal-scorer on the Mooseheads team that won the 2013 Memorial Cup, behind only Jonathan Drouin and ahead of Nathan MacKinnon. Ciampini was a little bit down the list, but he would have been a first-liner with most QMJHL teams. And yet Ciampini and Boudreau knew better than anyone that the NHL was at best a very long shot. “I think players are the first to know where they stand,” Ciampini says.

With neither drafted by the NHL, Ciampini finished his junior career with Baie-Comeau, while Boudreau bounced around three teams in the QMJHL. The summer after their junior eligibility wound down, they still held out hope of making a living at the game. Ciampini made his decision quickly. “I had free-agent offers from the East Coast league, but that didn’t interest me at all,” he says. He enrolled at Concordia University, just a couple of minutes from his home in Montreal.

Boudreau, though, signed a contract to play with a team in the French professional league. It didn’t take him long to realize he had made a mistake. “As soon as I got over there, the other players were saying to me, ‘What are you doing here? You should be in school,” he says. After a month, he quit the team and flew back to Montreal.

“Hockey players tend to adapt more quickly to student life than other first-year students.”

Ten years ago, Boudreau’s signing with that French team—what amounted to a European vacation—would have automatically voided the education package he had earned in four QMJHL seasons. But under the system instituted a few years back, only an entry-level NHL contract voids a CHL education package. At a lower level, players have a window to activate their benefits. For 19-year-olds, it’s 30 months; for overage players, it’s 18. In other words, players can take their shots or, in the case of a player like Boudreau, not have an ill-advised decision punish them. “It’s fair that what we put in time for isn’t taken away,” he says.

Boudreau enrolled in the business administration program at Concordia and has played for the Stingers the past two seasons, last winter alongside Ciampini. “It’s a really high level of hockey,” Boudreau says. “A lot higher than what I would have been playing in France.”

That much is made plain by the pedigree of players. Others in the Concordia lineup include Frederick Roy, who put in two seasons with Rochester in the American Hockey League; Scott Oke, a key player with a Memorial Cup champion in Saint John; and Philippe Hudon, a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, who didn’t sign with the team. In fact, all but four of the 27 players who dressed for Concordia last season have significant CHL experience. Not that the Stingers are a powerhouse—they were actually back in the pack in the CIS’s OUA Eastern Conference. The Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières had six players with ECHL experience. “Players in this league had the same experience as me,” Boudreau says. “I knew in Halifax that the NHL was beyond my reach, maybe before my family did. I managed to get in some college courses at Saint Mary’s there. I set myself up with [the education package], and it was a lot easier to adapt to life at school.”

While Boudreau will be back with the team, Ciampini has other plans. “Last year, I started coaching kids from age six up to midget,” he says. “I was an assistant, but I’ll be a head coach this year. School, coaching and playing is a lot to juggle. I want to go to teacher’s college, and coaching would be valuable experience when I apply or try to find a job.”

Undersized sniper
Matthew Boudreau could pot goals as well as anyone on the 2013 Memorial Cup-champion Halifax Mooseheads, but he knew he wasn't going to be an NHLer.

Trevor Stienburg can be found outside CHL team dressing rooms after games, looking to talk to coaches and GMs and, at their recommendations, players who meet his criteria. Stienburg has been at it for almost 20 years, bird-dogging and recruiting 20- and 21-year-olds to play for his Saint Mary’s Huskies. He, as much as anyone outside the CHL, can talk to the former major-junior player as a student-athlete. “If a kid has a chance at an entry-level contract, I wish him the best. He can put away money for if or when he wants to go to university,” Stienburg says. “[But] if all he has is an East Coast league contract and hope, he’s making a mistake if he doesn’t go to the CIS, not just Saint Mary’s but any other CIS program.”

Stienburg does his research to identify not just the best players but the best students among the best players. “We’ve always had a higher graduation rate than the rest of the student body,” he says. “[Hockey players] tend to adapt more quickly to student life than other first-year students. Most will have some university credits, and it’s not the first time most of them have lived away from home.”

A CIS coach who declined to be named said his experiences with recruiting CHL players to his program have been hit and miss. “Most teams in the [OHL and QMJHL] are pretty co-operative in recommending players to us and making them accessible,” he says. “There are a few that will still chase us away and say that CIS recruiting is a distraction for the kids, which is ridiculous. And then teams out west really don’t give any access to coaches from schools in Ontario, Quebec and out east. [The Western Hockey League teams] want to see their players stay with schools in the West for whatever reason, even if it really wouldn’t be the best opportunity for some of the kids. The CHL [coaches and executives] shouldn’t look at us as the enemy, and I don’t know why they do.”

Many CHL coaches see the situation differently. Their 19- and 20-year-olds are fielding calls from a dozen or more CIS programs on a weekly basis. To their minds, CIS recruiting looks too much like the NCAA’s intense push for five-star seniors in football and hoops. CHL coaches would like to see a standardized recruiting period that leaves their players free of distractions late in the season and through the playoffs.

The recruiting dynamic is likely in transition—it will be if Branch, the CHL’s president, can make good on his plan to standardize recruiting and management with CIS schools. “Right now, we’re in talks with the CIS and hope to have a co-operative arrangement in place in the near future,” he says.

Stienburg says talks between the CHL and CIS wouldn’t have to produce a partnership, just an understanding and standardization: “If they could come up with a recruiting period and information-sharing, it would be a win-win for the players and the schools.”

Commissioner in chief
David Branch has been the OHL's commissioner since 1979 and the CHL's since 1996.

As for Fortier, trading his advanced math-science studies for hockey seemed for a time to be a fair deal. He had a successful CHL career. He wore an “A” for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, played on a team with Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty at the under-18s and was a key player for the Océanic when Rimouski hosted the Memorial Cup. It looked like storybook stuff when the Montreal Canadiens selected him with the 65th pick of the 2007 draft and signed him to an entry-level contract. That, however, would be his first and last deal. He was done as a player at 23.

How did it come apart? There’s never one reason. He was a six-footer, but he was slightly built—genetics, metabolism, whatever, he couldn’t thicken up, no matter how much work he put in. With those Canadian teams in his draft year, he was a checking-line centre, and that was where the Habs projected him. He put in three seasons with Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton and didn’t break through the ceiling assigned him. “I could see the handwriting on the wall when I went back for my fourth season,” Fortier says. “I was getting passed by other players, and that summer, I was hurt. I couldn’t put in the work I needed to be ready to play in the year my [entry-level contract] was running out. I started behind and never could catch up. I went down to the East Coast league for a while, not where you want to be at 23.”

Fortier’s options were limited. He might have been able to sign an AHL deal or find a team in Europe that would have him, though only players with some NHL experience need apply to the leagues that pay something worthwhile. He didn’t feel like starting over in hockey. It was time to get out. “I was behind other guys my age [in school],” he said. “I only took one university course when I was in my first year in Hamilton. The rest of the time, I tried to focus on hockey.”

“The system can’t make you a good student by itself, but it’s there to help you now, more than before in a lot of places.”

Fortier voided his education package from his time in Rimouski when he signed with the Canadiens, but he had managed to put enough money away to cover his school costs. Moreover, his agent offered him a chance to stay in the game as a family adviser and player-development consultant while he was enrolled at Université Laval. Now, at 26, he spends weekends at rinks around the QMJHL and weekdays in study halls at Laval’s law school. “Things might have been different if I’d been able to stay in that [advanced math-science] program,” Fortier says. “Maybe things wouldn’t be different or better. I like what I’m doing now, and when I went back to school, I had no regrets. I went as far in hockey as I could.”

Today, Fortier talks to teenagers and their parents who face life decisions like those he faced a decade ago. He thinks their options are better than his. “It’s different,” he says. “Rimouski was very good to me [for school], but maybe today that advanced program would be available online. More things are available to serious students. The system can’t make you a good student by itself, but it’s there to help you now, more than before in a lot of places. And players and parents are more aware of what they’re getting into and what they can get out of the game. And sometime it’s not hockey—or not just hockey—that they should have in front of them. That’s what I realized at 23, and that’s what a lot are realizing at 20 and 21.”

*This story was updated on January 20, 2017

Photo Credits

David Zalubowski/Getty
Denis Brodeur/Getty
Richard Wolowicz/Getty