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Outdoor rinks like this one have hosted hockey games for years. Photo by Eric Westhaver.

Canada’s top junior hockey players may not have a union, but labour issues around their league are at the forefront.

 

The CHL, Canada’s top junior hockey league, is alleged to have violated Canada-wide minimum wage laws by underpaying players. A group of former CHL players have filed a class action lawsuit against the league.

 

CHL players are paid with weekly stipends, with the average player receiving around $50 per week. The suit, led by Toronto lawyer Ted Charney and former CHL players Lukas Walter and Sam Berg, calls for a settlement of a whopping $180 million to settle unpaid overtime, vacation pay, back wages, and damages.

 

One of the main issues in the lawsuit is the employment status of players in the CHL, and its three main leagues, the WHL, the OHL, and the QMJHL. The main question is whether or not players are considered to be employed by their teams.  

 

“If you consider them to be employees, then you ask yourself the question, ‘Well, if they’re employees, how much are they being paid?’” said Ron Pink, head of the Pink Larkin law office in Halifax.

 

Pink, a nationally-awarded labour lawyer, is familiar with hockey unions. Pink has previously worked with the NHLPA, the professional hockey world’s most influential union. “Most of them were paid less than minimum wage, they weren’t getting overtime pay, weren’t getting Workers' Compensation, weren’t getting Employment Insurance, that sort of stuff,” he explained.

 

The lawsuit is not just limited to the potential earnings of players. Included in the lawsuit are provisions for Workers’ Compensation, scholarship packages, and a thorough health care policy. Pink states, “If they’re employees, they’re employees, and they have all the rights of an employee.”

 

In hockey, a sport where injuries are frequent and can be severe, revamped health care packages and Workers’ Compensation could be crucial to injured players. In the past few seasons, players like John Chartrand, a former OHL goaltender, have reported having to play while suffering from concussions.

 

Tim Bozon, a player with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice and a Montreal Canadiens prospect, was hospitalized last year with a life-threatening case of meningitis. After leaving hospital and making a full recovery, Bozon and his family were stuck with medical bills that weren’t covered by CHL insurance.

 

Scholarship packages can also be an important addition, too. There are inconsistencies with the scholarship offers. Sam Berg, one of the representative plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit, alleges that the scholarship his OHL team offered him was rendered null and void after he was injured and was unable to play. The details surrounding scholarship offers can vary dramatically, too. Some players receive full four-year offers, while others receive payment for only part of a four-year program. Other contract items, like whether residence fees or meal plans are paid for, are also dramatically inconsistent.

 

This isn’t the first time the rights of CHL players have been brought up for debate. In 2012, an attempt to form a Canada-wide union began in Quebec, where the new group, named the CHLPA, seeked to unite players. Notable figures like former NHL tough guy Georges Laraque became involved.

 

The CHLPA’s main mission statement pledged to “represent all CHL players in a manner that is fair and equitable, always keeping in mind the physical, mental, educational and financial well-being of each player now and in the future.”

 

The CHLPA eventually folded, but the idea has not gone away. In July, the head of Unifor, one of Canada’s largest labour unions, said they would support attempts to unionize CHLers.

 

If the players' lawsuit is successful, the ruling would set precedent for teams and organizations in nine different Canadian provinces, each with their own regulations.

 

“There are a lot of jurisdiction issues because it’s Canada-wide. It’s a question of whether or not the Employment Standards Act has an application,” says Pink, adding, “There’s all sorts of jurisdictional issues there. It’ll be hotly contested.”

 

The CHL lawsuit, first filed in October, is still pending. At press time, neither the WHL nor the CHL had responded to requests for comment.