British Columbia

Western Hockey League exempt from paying players minimum wage as CHL lawsuit looms

The WHL lobbied the B.C. government to exempt the league from having to pay the province's major junior hockey players at least minimum wage.

There's no reason to exempt them unless the WHL is afraid they'll be ruled employees, says lawyer

The B.C. Liberals quietly exempted the WHL from having to pay at least minimum wage to major junior hockey players earlier this year. (Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Players on B.C.'s WHL teams won't be receiving minimum wage anytime soon.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act show that WHL officials sought an exemption from the B.C. government to keep franchises from having to pay major junior hockey players at least minimum wage, according to class action lawyer Ted Charney. 

The league cited immense financial hardship that would threaten the economic sustainability of WHL franchises.

The exemption states that "the Employment Standards Act does not apply to major junior ice hockey players" and was passed quietly earlier this year after a class action lawsuit was filed against the Canadian Hockey League — the umbrella organization that oversees the WHL and all other major junior hockey leagues in the country.

The lawsuit seeks to classify players as employees that deserve to be paid — at the very least — minimum wage.

Charney, the lawyer behind the lawsuit — which is yet to be certified by the court — says the league's lobbying efforts were a tool to bypass any unfavourable decision that might arise from the potential suit.

"There's no other reason to exempt them unless the league is afraid they're going to be found to be employees in court," he said on CBC's B.C. Almanac.

"The entire lobbying effort was predicated on how all the teams would be out of business were the class action lawsuit to succeed," he said.

Should players on the rosters of CHL teams like the London Knights be paid more than $50 a week? A lawsuit alleges the Canadian Hockey League is violating minimum wage laws. The CHL says it will vigorously defend the lawsuit. (Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

Counting costs

The lawsuit was filed in 2014 and is seeking millions of dollars in outstanding wages, overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay on behalf of current and former CHL players.

It argues players should be considered employees by virtue of CHL franchises operating as businesses and therefore deserving of minimum wage.

"I think they're in the business of making money, and that's why these players are entitled to be paid," he said.

According to Charney, if Canada's hockey teams were to offer players minimum wage, total salaries would cost each team roughly $300,000, something he thinks they could afford.

"Even the smallest team has revenues in the range of $2 million a year," he said, adding each team makes about $350,000 per year through revenue-sharing contracts with the NHL and Rogers SportsNet.

Charney also says the CHL enjoys 8.4 million paid spectators annually and tickets in some cities range from $20 to $40 apiece.

The league responds

But WHL commissioner Ron Robison stands by the position the league would be unable to incur additional costs.

"These franchises are not profitable. The industry is not profitable," said Robison. "I think it's a distorted message to send."

"We're trying to preserve these opportunities for these young players to play in leagues like the WHL and continue to provide a world-class experience," he added.

WHL Commissioner Ron Robison says franchises in the WHL are not profitable and would be unable to afford a minimum wage salary for players. (CBC)

Robison says players receive extensive benefits for playing in the league, including all travel expenses, room and board, equipment and supplies, education and medical and professional support services — not to mention, a platform to compete in elite-level competition that breeds NHL talent.

"The only way to preserve that really is to provide exemptions, and we really commend the government of B.C. for taking this step," he said.

Strong ties

But Charney remains skeptical that CHL franchises would crumble if they had to pay their players minimum wage — especially since the NHL depends on it for developing young players.

"The league is the feeder league for the NHL — and I don't think anyone's going to argue that the NHL has plenty of revenues and plenty of assets," he said.

Players in Halifax' CHL teams are also exempted from receiving minimum wage. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

"I don't think the NHL is going to let the WHL teams get into trouble financially, because they wont have their prospects coming through."

Charney says if the lawsuit gets certified, league franchises will be forced to open their financial books. The certification hearings take place early next year.

With files from CBC's BC Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Should major junior hockey players in Canada be considered employees?