The Western Hockey League has asked a Calgary judge to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed by former players who are suing the league for back pay, alleging provincial governments have already weighed in on the matter, that players have had appropriate legal advice, and that much of the time players spend off the ice with their team is voluntary.
The WHL is among three major-junior leagues that have been battling minimum-wage lawsuits for the past five years.
Current and former players suing the leagues have argued the teams are for-profit businesses –some of which make millions of dollars in annual profits – and that players should enjoy protection under employment rights legislation. The lawsuit suit alleges players have been paid less than the minimum wage – as little as $35 per week for between 40 to 65 hours of work. The leagues have countered that players are amateur student athletes and that they already have access to valuable educational scholarships.
In its statement of defence, filed in court on Sept. 3, the WHL said the amount of time its players commit to games, practices and workouts is no different than university athletes.
“The hours of practice and play are similar to elite amateur athletes in other sport including those in Canadian university sport who play hockey, basketball or football,” the WHL’s lawyers wrote in the league’s 28-page court filing. “Beyond practising and playing hockey, the plaintiffs’ only other activities with their teams included attendance at community or team-building events, which were largely voluntary.”
The WHL pointed to changes made recently by Canadian provinces and U.S. states that amend employment legislation and provide junior hockey teams with an exemption from paying major junior hockey players at least minimum wage.
“The defendants deny that they conspired or otherwise acted to breach the Employment Standards Acts,” the league wrote. “Such legislations has never been determined to apply to the players, and the governments of eight of the nine provinces in this country in which players compete have expressly confirmed that it does not.”
(Alberta is the only province host to Canadian Hockey League teams that has not yet weighed in on the question.)
The WHL also rejected claims that its teams have an unfair bargaining advantage over players such as former Saskatoon Blades forward Travis McEvoy and former Kootenay Ice forward Kyle O’Connor, who are both named plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.
“All of the [Standard Player Agreements] contain a schedule that allows players to negotiate certain benefits with their team,” the WHL wrote in its filing. “When players are under the age of majority… the player’s parents must sign the SPA as well. Travis and Kyle were represented by agents and were able to obtain legal advice before signing their SPAs. There was no imbalance in bargaining power.”
Rather, the WHL said its teams’ coaching staffs and trainers offered guidance to players regarding nutrition, hockey training, and their studies.