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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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An Ontario Superior Court judge has agreed to unseal documents related to an investigation into player recruiting violations by the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs.

Following a Friday court hearing in Hamilton, Ont., Justice J.A. Ramsay in a two-page ruling wrote that he didn’t agree with the OHL’s argument that disclosure of the documents might dissuade players from filing future complaints with the league.

“There are reasonable alternatives to a sealing order, even a limited one,” Ramsay wrote. “In the present case, the complainant has come forward and the witnesses have given recorded accounts. To prevent a chilling effect on future complaints, the league can enforce its rules against disclosure of confidential information.”

Justice Ramsay wrote that the material would be unsealed on May 3 to give the OHL and IceDogs time to decide whether to appeal his decision.

Courts are obligated to provide notice to the media before agreeing to seal documents. Justice Ramsay acknowledged during the Friday hearing that didn’t happen in the IceDogs case.

The judge released a decision in March that disclosed a law firm hired by the OHL had concluded that the IceDogs breached the league’s player recruitment rules by entering into a secret “side deal” with a former player, promising him $10,000 for every year he played with them (four years) but then didn’t pay him.

Justice Ramsay’s decision in March also revealed that the OHL began an investigation into the IceDogs in May, 2018, after the former player emailed OHL commissioner David Branch with a complaint.

The law firm also investigated whether the IceDogs had manipulated the 2015 OHL entry draft and found the team had not done so.

That decision in March came a month after the OHL announced on Feb. 15 that the IceDogs would be fined $250,000 and lose two first-round draft picks as a penalty for undisclosed recruiting violations.

On March 15, the IceDogs filed an application in Ontario Superior Court in Hamilton asking a judge to set aside those penalties until a claim by the former player could be heard in an arbitration hearing.

That IceDogs’ application, along with an affidavit sworn by team owner Bill Burke and the investigatory report scrutinizing the IceDogs actions, was sealed by Justice Ramsay, who denied the team’s application.

TSN subsequently filed a motion with the court asking that the sealing order be rescinded.

The business operations of the IceDogs have been under scrutiny for several years as a group of former players have sued the OHL for back pay, arguing that major junior hockey players are employees and should be paid at least minimum wage.

Denise Burke, who owns the IceDogs alongside her husband Bill, testified in a Nov. 14, 2015, affidavit that while her OHL team brought in an average of $2.7 million in revenue in a season, it was a frequent money loser because annual expenses typically ranged between $2.7 million and $2.9 million.

“We knew that we wouldn’t become rich owning a team, but seeing as this is our only business, we have always hoped that we would at least be able to break even and at least make more money than we spend, otherwise sooner or later the ‘Bank of Burke’ will run dry,” Burke testified.