CBC Investigates

Hockey league tries to trademark #HumboldtStrong without asking team

The president of the Humboldt Broncos says the team is prepared to fight its league for control of the #HumboldtStrong slogan that has become so deeply associated with the Broncos' bus tragedy.

Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League also wants rights to #sticksontheporch

Humboldt Broncos president Kevin Garinger says the team is prepared to fight for the trademark to #HumboldtStrong, for which the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League has applied. (CBC)

The president of the Humboldt Broncos says the team is prepared to fight its league for control of the #HumboldtStrong slogan that has become so deeply associated with the Broncos' bus tragedy. 

The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) has applied to trademark the phrase. But Kevin Garinger says his team wants the league to back off.

"We have one goal and that is that that trademark, the rightful owners of it, are the Humboldt Broncos and the Humboldt community — and that's what we will continue to fight for," he told CBC News. 

There was no collaboration around it. No discussion at all.— Kevin Garinger, president of the Humboldt Broncos

Garinger said those who suffered the most from the tragedy should control and benefit from the phrase that embodies it. 

Moments after the April 6 bus crash that killed 16 people associated with the team, #HumboldtStrong became a rallying cry on social media for those who were grieving and supporting the survivors. 

Two weeks later, SJHL president Bill Chow applied to trademark #HumboldtStrong and other associated phrases like #sticksontheporch and #healingisinthegame. 

Garinger said he learned about it after the fact. 

Chow has "tried to take those brands," said Garinger.

"There was no collaboration around it. No discussion at all."

League president Bill Chow says he acted in the 'best interest' of the Broncos by applying for the trademark. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC )

'Best interest'

Chow says, while he made the move without consulting the Broncos, he did it with them in mind.

"I'm doing it in the best interest of the Broncos as well as the league," said in a phone interview. "It's not like I was undermining them or anything like that."

Chow said, after the accident, he saw people selling Humboldt Strong merchandise for private gain. He said part of the league's role is to oversee and protect logos and trademarks of its teams.

"It's pretty hard to stop everybody if you don't have trademarks and if you don't have proprietary rights," he said. "If we didn't protect those, then obviously they would be up for anybody to grab onto, correct?"

If that happened, the trademark holder "can do whatever they want with it and the league, the Humboldt Broncos have no say in the matter," Chow said. 

Three days after the crash, the league partnered with a Regina-based clothing company to sell #HumboldtStrong T-shirts. (22Fresh)

Mental health support

Three days after the collision, the SJHL partnered with 22 Fresh, a Regina-based clothing company, to sell #HumboldtStrong T-shirts. The league said the proceeds would go to the newly created SJHL Assistance Program, created to provide mental health support for its players.

The league is also promoting Humboldt-related socks and stickers on its site. 

Chow said he hasn't quite thought through how the league might use the trademarks, but said he'd like to see if all 12 teams can benefit. 

Why wouldn't we try to help all the teams?— Bill Chow, SJHL president

"If we could not only do something to help the Broncos but to help all the teams, you know, I mean, from a league's perspective, why wouldn't we try to help all the teams?" he asked. 

The decision, he added, will be up to the board of governors. 

Garinger said the community of Humboldt and the team established the Humboldt Strong Community Association shortly after the tragedy and are the rightful owners of the phrase, though they did not apply for a trademark. 

He says the association intends to use funds raised for the benefit of the team, but also for others suffering across the league. 

He said if Chow wants to trademark #HumboldtStrong for the benefit of the Broncos, he should do the right thing and withdraw the SJHL's application. 

He said the association has made that point directly to Chow. 

"We've got a response that indicated that it would be about dealing with lawyers and talking with lawyers," he said. "I guess that's what we'll have to do as well."

A digital sign at Rogers Place in Edmonton displays the #HumboldtStrong slogan. (CBC)

Long process

The SJHL applied to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office on April 20. A few days later the applications were "formalized," meaning they were given official status and put into a very long queue. 

It takes almost a year to review an application and make a decision, according to Kursty Peterson, a registered trademark agent in Regina. 

Peterson said applications can be very complicated and there will be plenty of opportunity for any opponents to make their case.

In the meantime, Peterson says the trademark application doesn't have much legal power.

"You can't take that trademark application, the pending application, and fire off cease and desist letters demanding people cease use of that phrase," she said. 

"To try and stop people from using a trademark which is just pending you would have a very, very limited success trying to enforce that pending trademark application." 

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.