An Alberta, Canada judge has allowed for the certification of a class-action against the Western Hockey League (WHL). The five U.S.-based teams are exempt from the class action since they are outside the court’s purview. Players are suing the league for back wages, overtime, and vacation pay. This suit mirrors two others that are proceeding against the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The players claim they are employees and should be paid at least minimum wage. Currently, the players receive a $250 monthly stipend for travel and training expenses. The lawsuit alleges this breaks down to about $35 per week for 40-65 hours of work. The WHL argues the players are student-amateur athletes and are compensated through the league’s scholarship program. Each player is provided with a one-year scholarship for each year they are in the league. The WHL also has the backing of local politicians. The governments of British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, as well as Washington State, have all passed minimum wage exemptions for major junior hockey teams. Alberta has no plans to follow suit and create a players’ exemption. The lawsuit claims the BC exemption was passed after an intense lobbying effort by WHL officials. WHL owners have made over $300,000 in political donations recently, but the BC politicians say that did not impact their decision.
The league argued the governments made their decisions based on nothing but the reality of the situation. The WHL stated the teams are not profitable so any extra cost would sink the league. The players’ attorney believes a minimum wage would cost each team about $300,000 annually and that the smallest team has revenues around $2 million. The commissioner of WHL does not see how the teams could absorb those costs. The Vancouver Giants, for example, have lost $300,000-$400,000 each of the last four years and were forced to downgrade arenas. Instead, Commissioner Robison argued, players are compensated through expansive benefits, including room and board, equipment, education and professional support services. The biggest benefit is playing with elite competition in front of NHL scouts.
The WHL has 22 teams with players between 16 and 20 years old.