By Ryan Lum
The state of Washington is currently considering amending its labour law to exempt Western Hockey League (WHL) players from existing legislation. House Bill 1930 and Senate Bill 5893, acts “addressing the nonemployee status of athletes in amateur sports,” would exempt the players on Washington’s four WHL teams from laws defining state minimum wage and work conditions.
Gary Gelinas, President of the Everett Silvertips, gave testimony before the state labor committee, referring to WHL players as “amateur…they are governed by the amateur body.” When asked about his organization’s relation to amateur sporting bodies Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, Russ Farwell, President and GM of the Seattle Thunderbirds, testified “we are members.” A subsequent investigation by the Toronto Star has revealed that none of Washington’s WHL teams are members of either organization, potentially rendering Farwell’s testimony perjurious.
The owners allege that without the changes to labour law, they will be unable to operate their businesses in Washington state.
While both bills passed their respective labor committees and are currently under review, the state Labor and Industry Department is continuing its investigation into whether Washington’s WHL teams are in violation of child labour laws (WHL players are between the ages of 16-20), with a ruling expected in upcoming months. The League is also facing a class action lawsuit from former players for minimum wage violations. The lawsuit was filed last October and came days after another class action suit was brought against the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the umbrella organization for the WHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Ontario Hockey League. The class action suit against the CHL alleges the league owes players $187 million in unpaid wages.
While CHL commissioner David Branch refers to players as “student-athletes,” Hockey Canada by-laws describe a professional player as “compensated more for his ice hockey player activity…than the expense he directly incurs through playing ice hockey,” which seems to apply to most CHL players.
Randy Gumbley, former junior hockey coach and players rights activist, says that the characterization of WHL players as “amateur” is false. “These very teams have skaters who have played games in the NHL have been paid salaries and bonuses. They are, by definition, professionals.” Gumbley says that the owners have no basis in alleging they cannot pay their players the minimum wage. “Last year, the CHL sold more than eight million regular season tickets (a lot of them at $20 each). This is big business. The Quebec Ramparts (a QMJHL team) recently sold for $25 million. If the league had a revenue sharing program, all clubs would have ample funds to pay their players properly.”