Millroy: Minor Hockey Players Are Employees


Teams in the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella for major junior hockey in Canada, operate as businesses, the price for a franchise now hovering around $5 million.

The teams employ a general manager, coaches, trainers, equipment managers and office staff.

Yet, in one of the more weird anomalies, they don’t employ the players, the people who with their artistry on ice actually draw the customers to the rinks that allow owners to turn a profit on their investment.

Instead these players, who risk life and limb every time they lace on skates, are defined, by team owners, as amateur athletes.

This, if you take the time to give it any thought at all, essentially amounts to a pseudonym for slavery since the players can be bought, sold or traded at the will of team management.

And that, as strange as it may seem considering the year is 2020 and one would think this kind of thing is behind us, is something that is not about to change; indeed, it may never.

In 2014, three lawsuits were commenced in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, claiming that major junior hockey players in these provinces were employees subject to employment standards legislation.

The lawsuits, certified class actions launched under the names of players Sam Berg, Lukas Walter, Travis McEvoy, Kyle O’Connor and Thomas Gobeil, also sought $180 million for vacation pay, holiday pay, overtime pay and outstanding wages on behalf of about 3,600 current and former players who competed in the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League between 2014 and 2019.

The lawsuits were settled recently, the players receiving only $30 million of the $180 million they originally sought.

But probably the unkindest cut of all for the current players was that they lost out in their bid to be considered employees.

And they have the provincial governments in the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, to thank for that.

These governments greased the skids for the eventual settlement by declaring legislatively, after being approached by the leagues within their jurisdictions, that major junior hockey players are not employees within the meaning of the applicable employment standards acts.
David Branch, president of the CHL and commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, had asked the Ontario government to keep the OHL’s 425 players under the title of amateur athletes.

“I want you to know that our government is behind you,” responded Michael Tibollo, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, applying the first layer of grease. “We are going to do everything in our capacity to grow and support the Ontario Hockey League and junior hockey across our province.”

Not a thought, obviously, given to the plight of the players.

With government working in concert with the owners, the players and their attorneys could be excused for believing they had no recourse but to settle.

“The settlement recognizes that, as a result of these legislative declarations, there is now no legally recognized obligation for owners to treat players as employees under the employment standards acts presently in effect in the provinces with CHL teams,”  the plaintiffs representatives, Toronto-based Charney Lawyers, said in a statement.

I don’t think these governments should have had a hand in any of this. They had no business getting involved in what essentially amounted to a dispute between management and labour, even though the players are not allowed to be called that..

The matter should have been left to the courts to decide and, if the governments hadn’t come down in favour of the leagues, would have been.

In retrospect, I would have liked to have seen the plaintiffs persist in their cause, rather than let justice in the workplace continue to elude them..

Although the governments might have capitulated to the requests by the leagues, and therefore tilted the case somewhat in their favour, I believe an independent-minded judge would  have seen the absurdity of defining the players as unpaid amateur athletes, considering the teams for which they are toiling are for-profit businesses.

Teams do put out a lot of money for the players in the way of post-secondary school scholarships. Each season a player is with a major junior team is worth one year of tuition, books and fees. According to published reports, there were 321 OHL graduates using their scholarship at a cost of $3.125 million in 2017-18. This past season, teams spent $475,000 on scholarships for current players.

“To us it’s the best scholarship program in North America,” said Branch.
That might well be the case, but it as a stretch to think that this should lead to players continuing to be labelled as amateurs.

Players while on team rosters do also get money for out-of-pocket expenses, equipment and travel costs.

But again, this doesn’t take away from the fact that CHL teams across the country are getting cheap labour, much cheaper than they should.

Branch was quoted as saying the players are there for the love of the game and if teams in the OHL had to pay minimum wage to players, who mainly range in age from 16 to 20 and number about 450 in the OHL in a regular season, a lot of teams would go broke.

There are other businesses that have made the same claim. My retort is always the same, if you can’t afford to pay employees minimum wage, then you probably shouldn’t be in business.

Being a fan, I naturally wouldn’t want to see our Soo Greyhounds go away.

But there is a thing called fairness to the players that I don’t think team owners are taking into account.

For goodness sake, the players weren’t asking for the moon, they were asking only for the minimum wage.

They should have gotten it.