Are junior hockey players in Canada employees of their teams, or independent contractors and amateur athletes exempt from provincial minimum wage laws?
That issue is at the heart of a $180-million class-action lawsuit brought against the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
A statement of claim filed Friday in a Toronto court alleges players in Canada's three major junior hockey leagues are paid less than minimum wage.
The claims haven't been proven in court. To proceed, the class action has to be certified by a judge.
Lawyer Ted Charney is leading the lawsuit on behalf of representative plaintiff Sam Berg, who played for the OHL's Niagara IceDogs but whose career was eventually ended by injury.
Charney says all CHL players sign a contract that requires them to perform what amounts to full-time work through travel, practices and games. In return, he said, players earn a weekly paycheque of between $35 and $50.
"[The players] spend up to four to five hours a day, seven days a week working with the team providing services for the team, practices, games and everything else associated with it," said Charney on Monday in an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
Berg, now a student at McMaster University, told CBC News in Hamilton the players are being "exploited" by the CHL.
"Teams treat us like greyhounds," Berg said. "When they can use us, great, we're all in the good graces, but we're not getting paid. And then when they can't use us, we're just kicked to the side of the road."
"The pay is not there and the work is. That inequality needs to be changed."
The CHL is the umbrella organization of the Western (WHL), Ontario (OHL) and Quebec (QMJHL) major junior hockey leagues.
There are 60 teams in the CHL, stretching from Victoria to Halifax. The players range in age from 16 to 20.
Players paid below minimum wage, lawsuit alleges
The lawsuit claims junior players are paid less than minimum wage in their regions and that in addition to better pay, they should also get holiday, overtime and vacation pay.
The lawsuit alleges the CHL and its leagues are in violation of minimum-wage laws.
The CHL, however, has argued that its players are amateur student athletes and independent contractors who are eligible for scholarships.
CHL president David Branch has said the league will vigorously defend the lawsuit.
"These leagues are for-profit organizations," said Charney. "They have very lucrative television and marketing arrangements with some of the biggest corporations in Canada and very substantial ticket sales."
The CHL is where most NHL prospects play and train until they turn 20 or earn a spot on a big-league roster. Most of the players attend high school while playing hockey.
Metro Morning host Matt Galloway asked Charney if the possibility of a lucrative NHL contract is worth the low pay CHL players earn while they perform at a high level.
"The fact that players may ultimately have a very successful and prosperous career doesn't mean they shouldn't be paid for the services they're providing today, especially when the teams, the employers, are making a profit," Charney said.