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Canadian Hockey League Claims Made In Washington State Testimony Under Fire

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the CHL and its member leagues recently.  Some of these claims directly attack the CHL’s claims that the players are amateur athletes.

Washington State has an ongoing investigation into claims that WHL teams have violated labor laws by not paying players an appropriate wage under minimum wage standards.  On February 12th TJHN reported Washington State Introduces Legislation To Help WHL Teams Circumvent Wage Laws

Washington State by state representative Drew MacEwen introduced “Bill 1930″.  During that introduction executives with the state’s four WHL teams testified before the state’s labor committee on Tuesday that the bill would allow their players to be described as amateur, and exempt from state labor laws.

During that testimony though, claims were made that are now being seen as dubious as best, and possibly deliberately misleading.

GM of the CHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds Russ Farewell claimed in front of the Washington State Labor Committee that “We are members of both Hockey Canada and USA Hockey which are the governing bodies for amateur hockey in North America and our players are 100 per cent amateurs,”

Yet, In a Toronto Star investigation, it has been reported that documents and interviews with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey officials confirm CHL clubs, including those in Washington, are not members of the two governing amateur hockey associations.

“We have had no communication with any CHL teams nor do I know of them being members,” said John Vanbiesbrouck, junior hockey chair of USA Hockey for the past three years.

“I have no idea (why they would say that). . . . I don’t know what their view of being members are. But their team at the junior level is not registered with USA Hockey.”

TJHN has dug a little further and under USA Hockey Junior rules, all teams are required to report player additions, deletions, and trades on a regular basis.  The WHL teams in question do not report those transactions which are available to the public through USA Hockey.

The OHL, another member of the CHL with teams based in the United States has also come under fire recently.  The OHL has not made any claim relating to USA Hockey membership, and they too do not report any transactions through USA Hockey.

Most telling though is that their are no CHL, or Major Junior Teams or Leagues listed in the USA Hockey annual guide as members or sanctioned leagues.

As noted in the Star report, Hockey Canada’s current bylaws name the CHL as a “partner,” meaning the junior hockey league is one of a dozen organizations, including the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Deaf Ice Hockey Federation and the Aboriginal Sports Circle, that it recognizes as “significant stakeholders in the game of hockey.”

But the bylaws expressly state that partners “shall not be deemed members of Hockey Canada” and have no voting rights with the governing body other than in councils, committees or work groups on which they serve.

More than 40 Western Hockey League players signed entry-level contracts with NHL clubs this season. Another 63 players in the Ontario Hockey League have signed NHL contracts.  Those contracts, some worth more than $900,000 a year should they play in the NHL, come with signing bonuses that typically range from $40,000 to more than $90,000.

When looking at the big picture, although weekly player “stipends” may be small, they are still payments.  Combining that with signing bonus money, and it becomes a very hard argument to make that any player in the CHL is amateur.

A TSN report stated the following;

“Toronto lawyer Ted Charney wrote that he opposes Bill 1930 on behalf of his clients, Lukas Walter and Sam Berg, former major junior hockey players who are now suing the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.”

Charney wrote that there are “already procedures in place under the legislation that would allow the 16 and 17 year old players to play on WHL teams in Washington as long as the teams apply for work permits or for variances of the rules and regulations with respect to labour standards.”

“Mr. Walter joined the Tri-City Americans at the age of 18 after he had graduated from high school in British Columbia. He moved away from home to live in Kennewick and play with the Americans and at no time did he ever participate in any educational programs for the two seasons in which he played for the Americans.”

“In order to play with the team, Mr. Walter signed a standard player agreement. It is alleged in the complaint to be the same agreement that all the players sign in Washington, in which the team agreed to pay him $200/month. He was also issued a visa to WORK (sic) in the United States as a ‘professional athlete.’ Enclosed with this letter is a copy of Mr. Walter’s contract and work permit.”

Charney also told Washington law makers that a 2000 federal tax court of Canada case establishes that players on the Brandon Wheat Kings, a team in the WHL, are employees, not amateur athletes, and that some players in the WHL have already played in the NHL.

“These players cannot be considered anything but professional hockey players,” Charney wrote. “The teams in the WHL are for-profit businesses. It is alleged in the complaints that they sell tickets, concessions, and merchandise. They have corporate sponsorships and television rights agreements. They sell the images of the players in photographs and to video game companies.”

As one amateur adviser working with Amateur players moving on to the NCAA stated;

“Its a hard argument to make that anyone who receives a signing bonus larger than what some family may make during an entire year that the athlete is amateur.  The definition of “professional” in any job is being paid for your labor.  You may be a professional carpenter, a professional truck driver, a professional accountant, or anything else.  If you are getting paid to do a job, you are a professional.  If you aren’t getting paid what you are worth or what the law requires, then that is something that the individual needs to address.”

TJHN will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

Joe Hughes

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