WHL commissioner, general managers testify at hearing for Washington WHL labour bill

Scott Sepich
Buzzing The Net
Shea Theodore #17 of the Seattle Thunderbirds takes a shot on net during warm up against the Kelowna Rockets on February 10, 2014 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
Shea Theodore #17 of the Seattle Thunderbirds takes a shot on net during warm up against the Kelowna Rockets on February 10, 2014 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Underscoring the importance of a bill in the state of Washington that aims to define WHL players as non-employees, league commissioner Ron Robison joined the general mangers of all four Washington-based for a Senate hearing Wednesday afternoon in the state capital of Olympia. 

In that hearing, Robison -- along with Everett Silvertips GM Garry Davidson, Seattle Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell, Spokane Chiefs GM Tim Speltz and Tri-City Americans GM Bob Tory -- testified in support of the bill, stating that WHL players are amateur athletes who should not be subject to minimum wage and child labour laws (video can be found here, with the WHL testimony coming about 33:30 into the hearing).

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In a Wednesday evening session, the Commerce and Labor Committee passed the bill unopposed, which will send it to the full Senate. The House version of the bill is scheduled for a committee vote Thursday. If both full chambers end up passing the bill, it can be signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.  

Speltz said "it's fair" to say that the WHL could shut down in Washington if the bill isn't passed, based on the teams' assertion that 16- and 17-year-old players would not be allowed to be employed by the teams because of child labour laws.

The five men used the word "amateur" often in an attempt to hammer home their assertion that players are simply kids being given an opportunity to chase a dream and/or acquire university scholarship money, rather than employees charged primarily with making money for their franchises. 

 

The team representatives also spoke of being the primary tenant at each of their home arenas and stressed their involvement in charitable efforts in their home cities.

When asked if players receive any sort of payment for thier services, Farwell characterized the stipend paid to players as reimbursement for expenses. 

"There is a stipend, but there's no pay," Farwell testified. "They're amateur players, so they're earning a chance to be drafted and go pro if they're good enough, and if not they can use the scholarship."

Our own Neate Seager wrote earlier today about a Toronto Star piece that criticized Farwell for saying that the WHL teams were "members" of USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, when that's not true. At Wednesday's hearing, Farwell and Robison spoke only of being "registered" with the governing bodies, which may have been a deliberate change in wording. 

There was no opposing viewpoint represented at the WHL portion of the public hearing, which went on for about 15 minutes. Toronto lawyer Ted Charney, who represents former CHL players Sam Berg and Lukas Walter in class-action lawsuits against the CHL, sent a letter to the Washington senators in lieu of appearing at the hearing.

In the letter, Charney argues that the bill is not necessary to keep 16- and 17-year-old players eligible for the league, and states that Walter, a Canadian, was issued a work visa as a "professional athlete" to play for Tri-City. The letter also states that some players, like Walter, are not students while competing in the WHL. Most teams do not require players to continue their education past high school while in the league. At least one WHL team (the Portland Winterhawks) does require university-age players to take classes.

The Star piece challenged the teams' characterization of the league as "100 per cent amateur," noting that there are a number of players in the WHL who have signed NHL contracts. Players generally earn signing bonuses of up to 10 per cent of the value of their entry-level contract (the maximum bonus is $277,500), with most returning to the WHL for at least one more season after signing. 

 

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