CHL responds after Alberta judge orders teams to hand over tax returns, finance statements

The top brass in Canadian junior hockey says players are amateur athletes not employees. They are weighing in after an Alberta judge ruled the CHL must turn over its tax returns and financial statements to determine if some leagues are profitable.

CHL president David Branch says players have always been 'amateur athletes'

An Alberta judge has ruled that the Canadian Hockey League must turn over its tax returns and financial statements in order to determine if the league and its teams are profitable. (Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

The top brass in Canadian junior hockey says players in the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League are amateur athletes, not employees. 

It's a position that's caused tension in junior hockey since a former group of players filed a lawsuit two years ago. Those players argued the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and two of its umbrella leagues — the WHL and OHL — operate as a business and therefore should treat their players as employees.

Last Friday, an Alberta judge ruled that the CHL must turn over its tax returns and financial statements in order to determine if the league and its teams are profitable. 

CHL president David Branch says the demand from the judge changes nothing. 

"Nothing about the decision rendered yesterday changes our position that our players are, and have always been, amateur athletes and not employees," Branch said in a statement emailed to CBC.

CHL vice-president and WHL Commissioner Ron Robison wrote in a newspaper editorial also sent to CBC News that the leagues cover "all the necessary expenses needed to compete at the highest level of the Canadian amateur hockey system, including top-of-the-line equipment, room and board and travel costs."

Robison also said the CHL provides players with a year of tuition, textbooks and compulsory fees for each year they play in the WHL. 

Study conducted offered financial estimates

Lawyers for the former junior players commissioned Kevin Mongeon, an assistant professor of sport management at Brock University, to conduct a study on the value of the WHL and OHL franchises. 

According to TSN, many people have been skeptical of the legitimacy of the study's financial estimates. 

Robison said recent reports have "grossly overstated WHL club revenues and franchise values." 

"The majority of WHL clubs either break even or lose money on an annual basis, and we commend our WHL clubs for their commitment to preserving the benefits provided to our players despite the challenges they face," he said.

CBC has reached out to Mongeon for comment about his study.

According to class action lawyer Ted Charney, if Canada's hockey teams were to offer players minimum wage, total salaries would cost each team roughly $300,000. That's something Robison said the league couldn't afford.

"Any change to the status of our players as amateur athletes would result in our clubs having to adjust the benefits currently offered to players," Robison said. "For instance, if our clubs were required to provide minimum wage in addition to the benefits the players currently receive, the majority of our teams would not be in a position to continue operating."

With files from CBC Sports and Andrew Brown