Can major junior hockey clubs afford to pay their players? It’s a question that has been raised in a legal battle that’s been ongoing since 2014, when a class-action lawsuit was launched against the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
The lawsuit, filed by Charney Lawyers PC, alleges the league’s players are underpaid and seeks millions of dollars in financial compensation.
Major junior clubs, like the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Calgary Hitmen, have always stated they simply can’t afford to pay the players minimum wage, and can only cover expenses and provide academic scholarships. But until now, the teams haven’t had to open up their books to prove it.
On Friday, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice R.J. Hall granted Charney’s motion and ruled teams must reveal their finances to back up their claims.
“The defendants obviously consider that this evidence of financial difficulties is key to their opposition to the certification of this action as a class action,” Hall said in his ruling. “Having placed the clubs’ and the leagues’ financial viability squarely into issue, the CHL, the WHL and the clubs must produce their financial documents as potentially proving their position, or placing their evidence into dispute.”
Toronto lawyer Ted Charney, who is representing the players, says they’ll be able to review the financial agreements and status’ for all the WHL and Ontario Hockey League clubs.
“The league has filed 24 affidavits with a whole bunch of numbers and statistics but there’s not one piece of paper to back any of these numbers up,” he said. “They just threw the numbers in and they don’t give you any of the backup – which is why the judge was motivated to make this order.”
“For the first time in Canadian history, there will be an opportunity to see just how financially successful these leagues are,” Charney added.
“For all the work and sweat that they do, seven days a week – pretty much around the clock – they get paid nothing, absolutely nothing. They used to get paid $50 a week, from the 70s until we started this class action. Once we started this class action, the league’s changed their agreements and now they don’t pay them anything.”
In a statement to Global News, CHL Vice-President/WHL Commissioner Ron Robison suggested paying players even minimum wage could financially cripple many teams.
“Recent reports have grossly overstated WHL club revenues and franchise values,” he said in the statement. “The majority of WHL clubs either break even or lose money on an annual basis.”
“Any change to the status of our players as amateur athletes would result in our clubs having to adjust the benefits currently offered to players,” Robison added. “For instance, if our clubs were required to provide minimum wage in addition to the benefits the players currently receive, the majority of our teams would not be in a position to continue operating.
CHL President/ OHL Commissioner David Branch stated that the ruling does not change his position on the matter.
“Nothing about the decision rendered yesterday changes our position that our players are, and have always been, amateur athletes and not employees,” Branch said. “This was one of two decisions rendered by the court and we were pleased that the court agreed with us and struck out as inadmissible part of the plaintiff’s certification record earlier this month.
“We will continue to vigorously defend our position.”
Former Hitmen general manager Carey Bracko, who took over when the Calgary Flames bought the WHL franchise in the late 1990s, says teams like the Hitmen have taken years to make “any” profit.
“So we went from a couple thousands fans to filling the building and then everybody says, ‘Look at all the money they’re making … the kids should get more … everybody should get more.’ Well the Flames took the risk in the ownership of it,” Bracko said.
The WHL said it offers its players plenty of benefits in lieu of minimum wage.
“Since the scholarship program was introduced in 1993, more than 5,850 scholarships have been issued to graduate WHL players,” the league said in a statement. “Furthermore, the WHL offers a host of educational and mentorship programs within the WHL Players First program, which touches on many issues such as bullying, mental health and leadership, along with extensive health and safety initiatives. In addition, WHL players receive out-of-pocket reimbursement to assist with any additional expenses incurred.”
Meanwhile, Charney says his law firm has spoken with several players who want to participate in this case but don’t feel comfortable doing so for fear of being reprimanded down the road.
“They’re terrified,” Charney said. “Imagine being on a team right now and you’re siting on the bench with your 24 teammates and the coach comes up to you and says, ‘Hey are you in the class action? Are you suing our team while you’re playing on our team?’ It’s not happening.”
Bracko says based on his experience, he doesn’t think players at that age are overly concerned about earning a paycheque while playing at the major junior level.
“At 17, 18, 19 or 20 … are they (players) really thinking about the amount of money they want to get paid?” he asked. “Or is that something that’s really been brought up after the fact, after kids have gone through it. At the time that they go through (it), I don’t think it’s as big of an issue because they all have aspirations of making good money.”
An ESPN article suggests even once players reach the elite level of playing in a major junior hockey league, they only have about a five per cent chance of ever making it to the NHL.
There is no word yet on when exactly the major junior hockey clubs are expected to release their financial records.
According to Charney, last month the governments of B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and the state of Washington legislated major junior hockey players in their jurisdictions out of the class-action lawsuit and exempted teams in those jurisdictions from paying players minimum wage “based on statements that the leagues can’t afford to pay players without one legislature asking them to open up their books and verifying that these statements are true.”
You can read Friday’s ruling from Justice Hall in its entirety below: