The long-simmering dispute about whether teenagers in major-junior hockey should be paid more has come to the fore in British Columbia.
The Western Hockey League earlier this year won an exemption from the provincial government that allows the league's B.C.-based teams to pay players less than minimum wage.
Major junior players, aged 16 to 20, typically receive about $120 a week. Their housing and food costs are also covered, as they almost always live away from home. Potential postsecondary scholarship money is set aside. The WHL has awarded about 5,500 scholarships worth a total of $19-million since 1993, an average of $3,455 per scholarship.
The B.C. government decision comes as the question of pay is playing out in court. There are two lawsuits by former players, Samuel Berg in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and Lukas Walter in the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta. They are taking on the major-junior leagues and owners. The suits are seeking class-action status, claiming players are employees and that they have not been properly paid according to Canadian law. Major-junior leagues and club owners argue that their players are amateur student-athletes and that paying minimum wage would lead to the financial demise of numerous clubs.
The Canadian Hockey League, the major-junior umbrella organization, has girded for the battle, taking on Torys LLP, a top Toronto law firm, to defend its position. The lawsuits, helmed by the Toronto firm Charney Lawyers, are set for class-action certification hearings in courts in Calgary and Toronto this winter. And the suit in Calgary last week won a decision from an Alberta justice calling for the release of five years of financial data.
In B.C., Shane Simpson, an NDP MLA and the party's spokesman on labour issues, questioned the process by which the provincial government exempted the WHL from minimum wage.
"How is it that the B.C. government thought it was okay to do this when they were more than aware that there are court cases going on elsewhere in the country on this very specific question," Simpson said. "And I have seen nothing that suggests that they had a serious analysis of the financial situation of these teams and what could be a consequence if they had to start paying kids $10.85 an hour."
Simpson also questioned the political influence of some WHL team owners, who are prominent B.C. businessmen and notable financial B.C. Liberal backers: Tom Gaglardi of the Kamloops Blazers; Graham Lee of the Victoria Royals; and Ron Toigo of the Vancouver Giants. Together, the three men, through their companies, have donated $160,550 to the B.C. Liberals in the past five years.
As the WHL scored a win with the exemption from the B.C. government, the next immediate question in play is in the courts. Last Friday, R.J. Hall, a Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta justice, issued a memorandum of decision that called for the release of financial statements and tax returns from WHL and OHL clubs, records going back to 2011.
Justice Hall noted a "great deal of focus" was placed by the major-junior defendants on "an alleged deleterious financial effect" if they had to pay players more. The defendants argued against the release of the information, in one case saying it was "premature."
"I do not consider this application to be premature," wrote Justice Hall in his decision. "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."
The decision may be appealed. Lawyers for the defendants, Patricia Jackson and Crawford Smith of Torys, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, CHL commissioner David Branch said: "Our players are, and have always been, amateur athletes and not employees." Ron Robison, commissioner of the WHL, said in a statement the league provides a "world-class player experience" and added that more than half the league's 22 teams "either break even or lose money on an annual basis."
Staff at the B.C. government's jobs ministry did a "complete cross-jurisdiction analysis, policy as well as historical analysis," minister Shirley Bond said in a statement. Bond noted B.C. is not the first jurisdiction to grant major-junior hockey an exemption from minimum wage, following Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and the State of Washington.
The initial lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed in October, 2014 by Samuel Berg. Certification hearings are set for February in Calgary (where the WHL is headquartered) and March in Toronto (home of the OHL offices).
The suits seek damages of about $100-million in Calgary and $200-million in Toronto.
"The leagues have unlimited resources to throw at us," said Ted Charney, whose Toronto-based firm is leading the lawsuits. "They're sparing nothing on defending this case."
Charney questioned the B.C. provincial government's actions.
"I don't understand why the legislature would intervene when this is in the courts," he said.