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The law firm representing major junior hockey players in a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League says it wasn’t given an opportunity to present its side before the Ontario government publicly threw its support behind the league.

Joshua Mandryk, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, says that Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Michael Tibollo made a public statement backing the Ontario Hockey League last Thursday without hearing both sides in the players’ lawsuit seeking wages from the CHL.

“Certainly we had hoped and anticipated that we had been able to respond before the government did,” Mandryk told The Canadian Press.

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“Minister Tibollo did not have the benefit of our letter and our input when he made his statement, and you know of course we certainly hope he takes into consideration the circumstances facing these players when they craft the ‘solution’ they are referring to.”

OHL commissioner David Branch, who also serves as CHL president, sent a letter to the provincial government on Nov. 5 as an effort to keep the league’s 425 players under the title of amateur athletes, and not allow them to potentially become employees regulated by provincial employment standards legislation.

The government responded to Branch’s letter on Thursday, with Tibollo offering Branch a form of support by declaring “our government is behind you,” and that “I want to reassure the OHL and the people of Ontario that we are actively looking at providing this clarity to the OHL.”

Tibollo had not yet responded to a request for comment by The Canadian Press.

In 2014, Charney Lawyers filed a $180-million lawsuit against the CHL on behalf of all current and many former players for outstanding wages, overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay. Sam Berg, a former Niagara IceDogs forward, and Daniel Pachis, a former member of the Oshawa Generals, were recognized as the representative plaintiffs against the OHL when the lawsuit was certified in March, 2017.

The OHL has appealed the certification and is expected to be heard in court on Jan. 29.

Mandryk says that in the meantime Branch is using a “power move” to help persuade public opinion in the league’s favour rather than waiting to let the courts decide an outcome, so Mandryk followed up by sending his own letter to government officials within hours of Tibollo’s response.

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“Lobbying efforts we’ve been made aware of, where the OHL is pushing the government to exempt players from employment standards and we’re trying to communicate to the government that that’s the wrong-headed move.

“If we want to figure out if these folks are employees or not, which we’re certain they are, there’s a matter before the courts and the court’s in position to do that.”

Mandryk says that Branch’s timing of the letter isn’t coincidental with a new provincial government recently being elected.

“Up until this point Ontario has said no to their requests and have refused to exclude these young workers from employee standards and I think they’re taking another kick now that there’s been an election and a new government,” Mandryk said.

“[The government] is receiving pretty public and vocal pressure from the league, [Branch’s] open letter is pretty strong and we know they’ve registered to lobby.”

The CHL, which the OHL is a part of along with the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has always considered major junior players – typically ranging from 16 to 20 years old – as student athletes.

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Players are currently eligible for postsecondary school scholarships, with each season spent in the league being worth one year of tuition, books and compulsory fees. Players also get money for out-of-pocket expenses, equipment, billeting and travel costs while on a CHL roster.

Branch believes the league is already doing enough for its players.

The OHL’s recent move came after virtually all other jurisdictions in which CHL teams play have reviewed this issue and already passed exemptions/clarifications on employee standards, including Quebec, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, as well as Washington and Michigan.

Mandryk said if a decision is made by the Ontario government in the league’s favour, it should be on a go-forward basis and shouldn’t factor into the lawsuit seeking previous costs.

“There’s been a lot of court dates, motions, mountains of material, but we feel with the progress on certification we’re pretty hopeful we can move these matters forward,” Mandryk said.

“We hope the [league’s] appeal will be dismissed and we can move forward to finally determine this issue sooner than later.”

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