By Ryan Lum
In late October, it was announced that a class action lawsuit has been launched by current and former Canadian Hockey League (CHL) players, alleging that the league owes them over $180 million in compensation for failing to pay the minimum wage.
By making players sign contracts agreeing to compensation less than the minimum wage, the suit alleges that the league and franchise owners knowingly engaged in unlawful conduct.
CHL players, the suit alleges, make between $35-$120/week, incommensurable with the five to nine hours they put into practicing, training, traveling and playing every day. At that rate of compensation, players are making $1/hour or less.
The CHL, which serves as the umbrella organization for 60 teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Western Hockey League, is rejecting the suit’s claims. It says its players are “amateur student athletes” and “independent contractors” who are able to access scholarships, billeting and insurance through their teams.
Likewise, denying a worker’s status as an “employee” is a common tactic used by employers to reject a worker’s right to collectively bargain. Yet, longstanding issues in the league surrounding compensation and differential benefit packages highlight the value of collective bargaining for players.
Scholarships: what’s the fine print?
The suit’s representative plaintiff is Sam Berg, a former player with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs. After two seasons in the OHL, Berg was injured last year and was unable to continue playing.
Now a first year student at McMaster University, Berg thought he was contractually entitled to a four-year scholarship once he decided to leave the OHL and pursue his education. Instead, he has only been given enough to pay for one semester of university. He believes his absence from training camp this past September as a result of his injury is related to this.
While the league maintains that its scholarship packages are “generous,” only 20 per cent of players go on to complete a university degree.
Stipulations for accessing funding are notoriously difficult. Players are eligible for one year of funding for each year played in the CHL, but they must enroll within 18 months after having completed their junior career, and only in a recognized institution (which excludes trade schools). Otherwise, they receive no support.
If a player decides to pursue the NHL through playing in a minor pro league, they also become ineligible for funding. Many players do not receive room and board in their packages. Additionally, they are asked to make up the difference in tuition if the institution they choose to attend costs more than the allotted scholarship for institutions based within the team’s domicile.
Citing its commitment to player well being, CHL President and OHL Commissioner David Branch has pointed to the league’s recently instituted reimbursement program, where players are eligible to be reimbursed for up to $470/month in expenses.
However, as highlighted by Glenn Gumbley, who spearheaded the failed Canadian Hockey League Players Association (CHLPA) in 2012, by reimbursing players rather than give them stipends, the league is better able to argue that its players are not employees. He says, “The league came up with a system which will allow them to write-off expenses.”
Amateurism, NHL money, and Unions
Jaime McKinven, former CHL’er, author, and blogger, says the system is fickle when it comes to rewarding players. According to McKinven, “There is a lot of variation in school packages. Some kids get books paid for, some don’t. Some kids get extra perks, such as housing and
meal plans paid for, while some don’t. There isn’t consistency and there are too many loopholes.”
While the league also contends that many of its franchises are operating at a loss, McKinven points out that millions are being made through “development fees,” kickbacks the NHL gives to CHL teams when the former signs one of the latter’s players.
The dollar amounts of these fees often remain secret, which McKiven says allows the CHL to keep its veneer of amateurism. He says that “there simply isn’t enough transparency to know for sure how much money teams actually make. David Branch claims that only a handful of teams are profitable, but this is extremely hard to fathom by looking at the lucrative potential of running a business that doesn’t pay its employees.”
McKinven supports players organizing into a union in order to make the league more accountable. He says, “A union will help to ensure transparency and proper dispersal of revenues to ensure players are receiving adequate benefits packages, including medical, mental health support, education packages and expense reimbursements.”
“If they organize, they can make the league open its books, and then we’ll know how much players are making, how much teams are making, and where its coming from. Once we make sense of the finances, we can start to make things better and more equitable,” says McKinven.
Earlier this year, Unifor announced its intentions to organize CHL players. Unifor representative Sarah Blackstone says that the lawsuit only underlines the need for CHL players to have better forms of representation. “We have been having conversations with players and agents, and we’re not sure what specifically needs to be done there but we are trying to figure out the best solution.”
Dreams versus reality
Although the league argues that it represents the best route to the NHL – 52 per cent of NHL skaters are former CHL’ers – on average, only 35 CHL skaters per year of birth play in “the show.”
Meanwhile, players who become ill or are injured while playing do not often receive any long-term compensation. Tim Bozon, former Kootenay Ice forward and first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, contracted meningitis in March, remaining in a Saskatoon hospital for one month. As a French citizen, Bozon was billed $100,000 for his stay, the tab being in excess of the $5000 coverage provided through Hockey Canada’s Insurance Program. The league had to launch a campaign asking fans to help pays Bozon’s bill, and no funding was provided for his rehabilitation.
While Bozon made a full recovery, his story demonstrates the kind of precarious situations many CHL’ers face. Last March, Terry Trafford of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit was found dead in his vehicle, in what was later determined to be a suicide. Trafford had recently been dismissed by the club for smoking marijuana and was apparently “devastated” at the thought of not being able to play. It was known that Trafford was suffering from depression but was not provided with professional care from either his team or the league.
The class action lawsuit seeks to address just one of the many troubles faced by league players. As Berg told the Toronto Star, “I hope we bring awareness to an issue that has been suppressed by the league. I hope kids that have a passion for the game won’t be exploited for it.”