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Dismissal of WHL attempt to block class-action suit a step towards change in major junior ranks

An attempt by the WHL to block a class-action lawsuit against the league for improved wages and back pay has been dismissed, and it could be a step towards changing major junior hockey's archaic compensation practices.

You have to give the people who operate major junior hockey teams in Canada credit where credit is due. They continue to be on the wrong side of history and on the losing side of court rulings, but they forge on, just as determined as a 19-year-old fourth liner on one of their teams who has no hope of a career in the NHL.

On the heels of Alberta’s highest court dismissing the Western League’s appeal and ruling that a class-action lawsuit against the league for improved wages and back pay can proceed, the Quebec League plans to carry the Canadian Hockey League’s water on May 29 in hearings with the Quebec provincial government which will ask another lawmaker to consider its players amateur athletes and not employees, which would exempt it from paying its players minimum wage and offering basic employment benefits.

Considering how the Western League created a complete public relations disaster with a similar gambit with the Oregon State Legislature in March, you have to wonder why the Canadian Hockey League insists on continuing to defend the indefensible. But when you’ve been getting away with making money on the backs of teenagers with big dreams by paying them poverty wages for decades, well, you’re probably apt to do anything to keep those archaic practices alive.

But cracks are beginning to show, starting with a ruling that came down from the Alberta Court of Appeal, with the decision being made public on Tuesday. The WHL tried to block the lawsuit brought forward by former WHL players Lukas Walter, Travis McEvoy and Kyle O’Connor, but the court dismissed all the WHL’s appeals. Similar cases are facing the courts in Ontario and Quebec, along with the hearing at the end of the month in Quebec, which effectively is a lobbying effort to make junior hockey exempt from basic labor laws, which would have a massively negative effect on the lawsuits.

“It’s disappointing that they’ve chosen to proceed this way rather than awaiting the determination of the players’ rights in court,” said Tina Yang, one of the lawyers representing the players in the class-action lawsuit, “but obviously we don’t control legislative process.”

The primary argument advanced by the WHL and the CHL against certification was that there was a fundamental conflict in the class between former and current players. Because former players have nothing to lose, the WHL argued, if they have to pay former players they would be forced to go out of business and that would affect current players. “But our position all along has been that you can’t contract out of your duties as an employer,” Yang said. “If a restaurant can’t afford to pay its servers and cooks, then the restaurant tends to go out of business, right? We’re happy that the court of appeal affirmed that it can’t make that sort of argument in certification, that there shouldn’t be a class action just because they might go out of business.”

There’s no doubt that paying these young players what they’re worth for the hours they put into playing would raise costs for everyone. But would it put teams out of business? It might be too rich for some, but the fundamental question is whether a team should be able to deny its workers basic wages and benefits simply because it can’t afford to do so. If it doesn’t apply to any other business, why should it apply to junior hockey organizations?

Well, the CHL would argue that it’s because their workers are amateur/student athletes and not employees. Virtually everyone else connected with the team, from the GM to the office secretary to the kids who sell popcorn at the games, are treated as employees and are paid as such, but the players are not. And boy, do some of these people get paid. According to the CHL’s own tax return in 2016, the total remuneration paid to all employees and officers was $777,050. Meanwhile, the organization took in gross revenues of $24.4 million. And in its 2015 tax return, the WHL reported total operating expenses of $14.1 million and total revenues of $14.3 million.

It’s in this backdrop that the CHL cries poverty on behalf of its teams. But there is no revenue sharing in junior hockey and if the big-market teams that make big money refuse to help prop up their own partners, then yes, perhaps those small players will fall by the wayside. But what’s even more unsettling is that the teams in the CHL continue to provide financial reports that are sketchy and without detail, with enough wiggle room to fit a team of Dustin Byfugliens.

And as long as they continue to do that, they’re going to continue to experience setbacks. And until they get on the right side of history, there are those who will continue to challenge them.

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