For 50 years, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has been a stepping stone to the NHL for young players.
Gilles Courteau has been its commissioner for the last 33 years and has overseen a lot of growth and changes.
He expanded the league to the Maritimes, and since breaking through with the league’s first Memorial Cup win in 1996 by the Granby Predateurs, QMJHL teams have gone on to win the national title seven more times.
But as the league celebrates its anniversary by looking back on what it has accomplished, its commissioner is also facing fresh challenges.
Some are demanding that the league start paying its players. Others think it should change its rules to prevent teenagers from being treated like commodities with trades.
Courteau says QMJHL doesn’t keep statistics on how many players are traded each year. By Radio-Canada columnist Martin Leclerc’s count, this season, 105 players — or 25 per cent of all players in the league — switched teams since the start of training camp.
Leclerc concludes that’s a large number and says it raises concerns over if this is best for the players or if it is only beneficial to the teams.
Courteau does not believe this year’s numbers are out of the ordinary, but concedes that if there is a spike, it’s only because the league is enjoying some healthy competition at the top of the standings.
“The number of players that get traded all depends on the league’s situation,” Courteau says. “There are many teams in our league that think they can be a contender to represent the league at the Memorial Cup in Halifax.”
Courteau also says that players are well taken care of when they change teams and unlike the other leagues in Canada, the QMJHL will only allow trades when the players aren’t in school.
“When a player is traded, it won’t impact or affect his school. He won’t miss any courses. Every time there is a trade, it’s during a school break or training camp,” Courteau says.
What has been the league’s crowning achievement so far? Courteau gives his opinion:
Paid to play
Another hot topic facing junior hockey in recent years is the issue of pay.
Some have argued that because junior hockey teams are selling tickets and filling the grandstands, players deserve to be compensated with at least a minimum wage.
Courteau disagrees with this line of thinking.
“A player should never be considered as an employee,” he said.
Courteau argues that beyond the possible financial impact on the teams, paying players would undermine the league’s mission to develop amateur athletes.
“We don’t want to give [players the] additional responsibility of an employee. We want him to play in the QMJHL and concentrate on hockey and school. Nothing else.”
He also believes that paying players minimum wage could serve as motivation for teenagers to drop out of school.
Courteau says a paid player could theoretically argue: “‘We’re not going to school anymore because we’re working. We’re playing hockey, we’re getting money, we’re getting a paycheque on a weekly basis, we will think about school when were done playing major junior.’ No. This is not what we want to do.”
Courteau added that he has spoken to each provincial government where his league operates and says all have agreed to clarify the status of his players as amateur athlete students.
A return to Montreal unlikely
There hasn’t been a QMJHL team on the island of Montreal since the Montreal Juniors relocated from Verdun to Boisbriand in 2011, and commissioner Courteau doesn’t anticipate a team coming back anytime soon.
He says the league is not looking to expand and none of its 18 franchises are looking to relocate.
Additionally, he says there is no venue on the island that would be suitable for junior hockey.
“Where we are right now, we’re very satisfied. We will continue to work to make sure that our 18 teams are going to be able to operate for the next 50 years in their location,” Courteau said.