CHL responds to $180-million class action lawsuit over wages: 'We believe that our players are amateur student athletes'

CHL president David Branch (left) with St. Louis Blues draft pick Robby Fabbri in May 2014 (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)
CHL president David Branch (left) with St. Louis Blues draft pick Robby Fabbri in May 2014 (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)

At some point soon, major junior hockey will have to better define and formalize — get it in writing, as it is said — how it compensates its players.

The Canadian Hockey League issued a statement in response to Monday's Toronto Star bombshell about a class-action lawsuit that "seeks $180 million in outstanding wages, vacation, holiday and overtime pay and employer payroll contributions for thousands of young players."The CHL's fallback position appears to be that its some 1,300 players are "student-athletes." That term itself has taken a beating, primarily from author Taylor Branch's 2011 denunciation and deconstruction of the legalistic history behind the use of "student-athlete" in the NCAA, and the ruling in the O'Bannon vs. NCAA case, so it's interesting that a term that major U.S. college athletic programs can barely justify using any more is being utilized by three member leagues and 60 teams, most of which are private businesses. The difference is the players can get educational support after playing in the league; CHL president David Branch told Toronto's TSN 1050 on Monday that the league dispensed more than $6 million to 597 players "on scholarship in the CIS [Canadian Interuniversity Sport]" during the 2013-14 season. But that's not guaranteed, which makes it harder to say it's a defined benefit.

The gist of the CHL response:

We will also continue to review and refine our programs through research and talking to our players, their parents, and our teams. We believe that our players are amateur student athletes.

In terms of the class action that was filed today in Toronto late last week, the CHL, our member leagues and teams will vigorously defend ourselves against this action which will not only have a negative effect on hockey in Canada but through all sports in which amateur student athletes are involved.

In addition, despite all mentions to the contrary, recent communications and social media posts by Glenn Gumbley of the CHLPA lead us to believe that the Gumbleys are still actively involved on the fringes of junior hockey in Canada and with this action. The CHL will once again issue warnings to our players and their parents cautioning them about the Gumbleys. (media release)

(Gumbley was involved with the discredited Canadian Hockey League Players' Association initiative in late 2012. On July 6, he issued a statement that Unifor, Canada's largest private section union, would "continue the unionization process started by the CHLPA." and that he had "turned over all relevant documents to aid and assist in a smooth transition" to Canada's largest private sector union. A two-year Twitter account, @theCHLPA, with a profile picture that depicts Glenn Gumbley is active as of this writing.

The CHLPA threat got a lot of attention since it occurred at the same time that a NHL lockout made for a dearth of hockey news. Two years on, the CHL has a 12-year TV contract with Sportsnet that has probably enriched all teams.)

The meat of the CHL response is where the 'amateur student athletes' line in the sand can stand. It's a complex issue. It might feel odd that the 17-year-old pouring coffee at an Erie Otters game is receiving a hourly wage while 17-year-old Connor McDavid and his Erie Otters teammates do not, even as they produce a substantially bigger portion of the value of going to an OHL game.

At the same time, that concessions worker is not likely to get a professional contract out of her/his experience. Or have the chance to receive funding for post-secondary education. Or have a host family to live with. Or receive other benefits such as having training and a cell phone paid for by a team.

The various leagues have preferred an incremental approach to providing for the off-ice needs of players. All along, through all that well-intentioned spin, it hasn't been defined what category the 16 through 20-year-old players fall under in the eyes of law. Granted, you could argue 98 per cent of the people in the arena at a major junior game could not care less about that, but here we are since someone is challenging the system.

As Branch put it to TSN 1050's Dave Feschuk and Bruce Arthur, when Arthur asked if major junior would be organized any differently if the leagues were starting from scratch:

"You can never lose sight of the fact you're dealing with young people. And the young people, we had a focus group of our graduating overage players in June asking for their views and attitudes about the OHL experience after four or five years. And they had some great ideas, but nothing around 'hey we need more money ...can you put in a clause that if you're in high school, you effectively have a no-trade clause?' Our owners put that into place. They also asked about a program for mental health ... while the tragedy of Terry Trafford was ever so fresh. That had been in the works and we put that into place."

And on the fact that the CHL does not have collective bargaining:

"We're dealing with teenagers. And what we saw to parents is, 'when you drop off your son in Ottawa to play for the 67's, don't stop being a parent.' I mean there's that layer of support. Ninety-seven per cent of the players in our league have agents, family advisers. Our teams are equipped with sports mechanisms through sports psychologists... on and on and on. We have all this in place. Players are not on their own. Players are not being taken advantage of. That's something you cannot lose sight of."

Still, Unifor, et al., are gunning for that definition — employee, independent contractor?  

A court proceeding, if indeed it comes to that in the case where former Niagara IceDogs player Sam Berg is named as the representative plaintiff, would better establish whether major junior players are adequately compensated. The CHL might have to muster more than getting into a semantic argument or highlighting initiatives that can have a PR-driven element. Ultimately, spending a few hundred thousand more per team per year shouldn't rupture the fabric of the CHL, although it might have to pool revenues more evenly.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.