With files from Rick Westhead, TSN
Twin lawsuits were filed Friday against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League by former player Lukas Walter.
Walter, a 21 year old left winger from Langley, BC, played 117 games over two seasons with the Tri-City Americans, scoring 1 goal and 4 assists, with 165 PIMs; and 53 games with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL, scoring 1 assist and 141 PIMs.
In his $50-million case against the QMJHL, Walter alleges that the league’s teams conspired to rewrite standard player contracts last year to avoid paying players the legal minimum wage.
In a second, $60-million case filed in Calgary against the WHL, Walter alleged that the work visa the Tri-City Americans secured for him to play for them is proof he had an employer-employee relationship with the team, and should be paid at least minimum wage.
The lawsuits were both obtained by TSN.
Over the past months, the Canadian Hockey League’s three major junior leagues have come under fire by former players and union organizers over their working conditions for players.
While few of the CHL’s star players have complained, other lesser-known players contend that they are receiving a pittance while playing for leagues that have become big business.
A recent lawsuit showed that former Oshawa Generals president Patricia Campbell was paid $150,000 during her first year on the job. Player agents say coaches and general managers of teams make some $200,000 each per year.
“So why are players, 95 per cent of whom won’t have long careers in the NHL, expected to work for free?” asked one NHL player agent. “The CHL and its supporters say, ‘fine, we’ll pay minimum wage and you pay for your sticks and room and board.’ But that’s a ridiculous argument. Does Ford make its workers on the line pay for tools? It’s the cost of doing business.”
The agent also pointed out that room and board wouldn’t be necessary if the CHL dropped its player draft and allowed players to play for teams near their family home.
Walter played the 2013-14 season with the Saint John Sea Dogs. According to his statement of claim against the QMJHL, Walter signed a contract as a 20-year-old player with Saint John on Sept. 13, 2013. He was to receive $476 per week in compensation, and another $90 a week for accommodation, court papers say.
Walter played 53 games as a forward for the Sea Dogs, primarily playing the role of an enforcer.
He alleges that he was paid $8,314.29 for the six-month season, and that a record of employment shows that he officially worked 1,048 hours over that time for the team.
“Lukas’s bi-weekly pay was always the same, no matter how many hours each week he worked for the team,” his lawsuit says. “In some weeks, he did not receive a fee equivalent to minimum wage, nor did he receive any vacation pay, holiday pay or overtime pay as required under the applicable employment standards legislation.”
Walter alleged teams in the QMJHL have “unlawfully, maliciously … conspired and agreed together, the one with the other, to act in concert to demand or require that all players sign a contract which (they) knew was unlawful.”
Walter is asking that the Quebec court certify his case as a class action lawsuit and award damages of $50 million.
Walter’s allegations have not been proven and the QMJHL and Sea Dogs have not filed a response in court. CHL commissioner David Branch did not respond to an email seeking comment. A QMJHL spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment. A Sea Dogs spokesman referred calls to the QMJHL.
In a second lawsuit filed later Friday, Walter said that he played the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons for the Tri-City Americans, earning (U.S.) $70 a week in his first season and (U.S.) $85 a week during his second season.Walter is Canadian and the Americans play in Kennewick, Washington. In order for him to travel to the team, its officials acquired him a P-1 work visa for “internationally recognized athletes.”
“The entire time he played for the Americans, he was not a student at any time,” the lawsuit says.
Walter has sued for $45 million worth of back pay, holiday pay and overtime, and $15 million in punitive damages. He is also seeking to certify the Alberta case as a class action.
“We have not yet had the opportunity to review the lawsuit received late this afternoon,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison in a statement. “The WHL will however vigorously defend our player experience and the extensive investment our ownership makes in our players. We will also be addressing those matters that are being taken out of context and used in lawsuits which have been orchestrated by individuals who have no association with the Canadian hockey system or the WHL.
“WHL players are amateur athletes who are registered in the Canadian amateur system and they receive an extensive benefit package while playing in our League. There is no indication from our current players or their families that they are being treated in any way but a highly fair and respectful manner.”
Walter’s lawsuits came days after another lawsuit was filed by former Ontario Hockey League player Sam Berg against the CHL, the governing body for 60 teams in the OHL, QMJHL and Western Hockey League.
Berg, who just turned 18 on Oct 1, was drafted 282 overall in the 2012 OHL priority draft by the Niagara IceDogs, played one season in the OJHL in 2012-2013 and 8 games with the Niagara IceDogs last season. He is the son ex-NHLer Bill Berg (546 games, 4 teams), and also an enforcer, scoring 21 points in Junior A for Hamilton, while leading the league with 173 PIMs.
A statement of claim filed by Berg on behalf of himself and thousands of other players seeks $180 million in outstanding wages, vacation, holiday and overtime pay and employer payroll contributions, according to legal documents obtained by TSN.
The documents filed by Berg show players in the OHL receive $50 to $120 a week in compensation, while players in the QMJHL get $35 to $150, depending on the age of the player. Those aged 16 to 19 get $50 a week in the OHL and $35 a week in the QMJHL.
CHL president David Branch has repeatedly said that players in the CHL are student athletes, and are well compensated, thanks largely to an education program the league has in place that provides some players with university scholarships when they are done playing.
That description of players as student athletes is now under fire in Walter’s lawsuit.
In past years, players were described as independent contractors by teams in their contracts.
But in 2013, at the same time as questions were being raised in the U.S. over whether NCAA student athletes receive their fair share of compensation, the CHL redrafted contracts to remove references to fees, Walton’s lawsuit alleges.
Instead the players’ fees were recast as an allowance.
QMJHL teams have reworded the former contract to describe the fee as an allowance and to recast the status between players and clubs as one of ‘student athletes’ in an attempt to avoid minimum-wage laws, Walton says.
In the wake of Berg’s lawsuit and as the union, Unifor continues efforts to start a players union for major-junior hockey, several player agents told TSN that it’s common practice for teams to give players T-4 tax slips, which they say is evidence that players are employees, not student athletes as Branch describes them.
On Oct. 23, before Walton filed his lawsuit, TSN sent Branch a series of emailed questions.
One question was: “Some OHL teams issued T4 slips for the 2013 tax year … doesn’t that establish an employee-employer relationship?”
Branch replied on Oct. 24 that “we are not currently issuing T4’s and we are not certain what the past practices of our Clubs may have been. The teams are responsible for filing their own tax documents and the league doesn’t have access to their detailed information.”
While TSN has learned that the CHL also has a new TV contract with Rogers Communications that is worth at least $5 million a season (the previous TV contract was a barter deal with no rights fee), Branch declined to discuss terms of the CHL’s TV contract.
The CHL teams also have relationships with video game companies, as noted by Walter in his lawsuit against the Americans and the WHL.
“The (WHL) used images of Luke for their own profit, including, but not limited to selling the use of his image and name to video game companies for use in a video game which Luke purchased at full price with his own money,” Walter’s lawsuit says.
Branch, meanwhile, was also asked about recent changes to the standard players agreement (SPA) in the OHL.
“I will reiterate that 97 per cent of our players are represented by agents, in addition, the players and their parents are required to sign the SPA and to either provide a certificate of independent legal counsel or a waiver of such,” Branch wrote.