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WHL and junior hockey get much more than they bargained for in gambit with Oregon lawmakers

In seeking to have their players considered amateur athletes and not employees, it appears the WHL and the Portland Winterhawks have sparked a debate that they'd rather not have.

The Western League appears to have walked into a public relations nightmare completely of its own making in the state of Oregon. It was in the form of something called HB4093, a bill that was initiated by the Portland Winterhawks in the Oregon State Legislature. The bill died in committee when the legislature adjourned over the weekend, but that’s only a small part of the story.

The Winterhawks were seeking to have their players considered amateur athletes and not employees, which would exempt the team from paying players minimum wage and preclude the players from worker protections such as workers’ compensation insurance and unemployment insurance benefits. The Winterhawks were hoping the lawmakers in Oregon would simply codify the exemptions that have been granted to major junior teams operating in the states of Washington and Michigan, as well as the provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The Winterhawks alleged that they would have to move if this bill doesn’t get passed, in part because it would not be compliant with WHL rules that forbid paying players as professionals.

But in the end, the Winterhawks and the WHL got more than they bargained for – much, much more. The Bill passed through the state’s House of Representatives, but when it got to the State Senate, it began hitting some major roadblocks. Organized labor in Oregon mobilized to have the bill defeated by presenting some very damaging testimony in front of Oregon’s State Committee on Workforce last Tuesday. That committee referred the bill to the Rules Committee without recommendation, which is very rare. In doing so, the Committee on Workforce chairwoman, Sen. Kathleen Taylor, told the WHL she was sending it to the Rules Committee with, “grave concerns and some unanswered questions.”

The Winterhawks had testimony from former Winterhawk and former NHLer Paul Gaustad, a native of Oregon who is also the president of the Jr. Winterhawks program. But that was clearly outweighed by some damaging testimony from two former WHL players – Tyler Maxwell and James McEwan – and the mother of former WHL player Garrett Taylor.

In arguing that the WHL is a for-profit business, both Maxwell and McEwan told the committee that their rights as workers had been repeatedly violated. Maxwell, who played for the Everett Silvertips and Edmonton Oil Kings, alleged that he suffered a cracked kneecap after being hit with a slapshot and was forced to return to the game and play seven more games before being able to get an x-ray. He said he now has two pins in his knee from surgery and still suffers pain from the injury. McEwan estimated that in his four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets, he was in 75 fights and suffered numerous concussions. He said that because he pursued a pro career after junior hockey, his scholarship money was gone and that he had to pay for his own healing. He said he suffers from depression, mood swings and thoughts of suicide. He also had to go into debt settlement. “Children are being abused, manipulated, exploited and neglected,” McEwan told the committee.

The committee also heard telephone testimony from Kim Taylor, whose son Garrett played two seasons for the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Prince Albert Raiders. She alleged that her son was released from his team by being pulled off the bus prior to a road trip and that she learned of the development only after receiving a text from the father of one of her son’s teammates. She alleges that as a result of the treatment, her son suffered panic attacks that manifested into obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and he had to be institutionalized for 72 days with the bill for care being paid by his father’s insurance. She also alleges that her son’s time limit for accessing his scholarship money ran out while he was seeking treatment. “My son was sick, he wasn’t able to attend school,” Kim Taylor said. “I put him in the hospital and his time limit ran out. It really is a travesty.”

The testimony was so powerful in fact, that one of the committee members, Sen. Sara Gersel, was moved to say, “I want to apologize. I took my daughter to a Winterhawks game and it didn’t occur to me that we were enjoying an evening and having fun based on the exploitation of children that were her age. And I’m remorseful that I participated in that.” Even the lawyer representing the Winterhawks, Tim Bernasek, was taken aback by the allegations. “Truly shocking, sad situations that are not, I think, indicative of the league and the team that I represent. These are very disturbing allegations and ones that need to be looked into and I think are taken very, very seriously. I think we were all very disturbed and shocked at what we heard.”

What started as something the WHL and the Winterhawks thought would be a simple process has degenerated into a nightmare, largely because some people in Oregon stood up to junior hockey. The local United Food and Commercial Workers, the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, Oregon Working Families and the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association all spoke out against the bill and in fact created a website urging people to contact their senators to vote against the bill.

None of that had to happen because the legislature ended its session and the bill died in committee, but it adds another interesting layer to the debate about how to deal with major junior hockey players. And it’s a debate that the WHL and junior hockey probably would rather not have.

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