Former players made a point in CHL wage lawsuit, but junior hockey dodged a major bullet

The minimum-wage lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League that has been playing out since 2014 reached a $30 million settlement on Friday, but any current and future players are exempt from benefitting from it.
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Well, major junior hockey operators in Canada got rid of one of the biggest headaches they’ve had in their history and all it cost them was $30 million, much of it paid by insurance, and a ton of negative headlines. Now they’re free to go back to paying their "student athletes" less than minimum wage.

Sounds like a pretty good deal for them. Because essentially what has happened when the CHL minimum-wage lawsuit was settled to the tune of $30 million is that the former players who bravely and persistently fought for this chunk of money were able to win in court for themselves and the roughly 3,600 other players in the lawsuit. But in the bigger picture, the Canadian Hockey League won in the far more important political arena by convincing each province to consider its players student athletes, which exempts it from annoying employment standards legislation. Once they managed to do that, they were happy to settle. It's believed it cost each team about $250,000.

That being said, this was the best possible outcome. Because the CHL was able to convince lawmakers to get on their side, there was no chance this class was going to get any bigger and there was no chance it was going to change the lot of current players, which basically capped the CHL’s liability. So the ones who were invested in this had a choice of dragging this through the courts for years with little to gain or take this settlement and they chose the latter. Former players Sam Berg, Lukas Walter, Travis McEvoy, Kyle O’Connor and Thomas Gobeil should take a bow. They did an outstanding job.

So, now there will no longer be any grousing from major junior operators about the fact that being forced to pay a living wage to its players would put them out of business, because current and future players are all exempt. (So you basically don’t pay the bare minimum wage to your employees so you can stay in business. Which is really the epitome of entitlement when you think about it.)

“There’s an old lawyers’ saying that the only good settlement is a settlement where nobody is particularly happy about it because it was one where everybody had to give and take,” said Ted Charney, one of the lead lawyers for the players. “This has been a very long, hard-fought battle, effectively gloves-off litigation for several years. We had to fight the (political) lobbying, which we lost miserably on, but we won in all the court rooms.”

Of the 60 teams in the CHL, 52 of them are based in Canada and those were the teams that were part of the lawsuit. They will pay the $30 million in Canadian funds, which the players will receive after the legal fees have been paid. Including affiliate players, there were 4,266 players in the class, with 3,600 of them full-time players. The amount each player receives will be dependent on how many of those players file for a claim and how many years the player played major junior hockey. As part of the settlement, players in the class who signed an NHL contract will not be eligible to receive any payment. “We don’t know how much each player will receive because it will depend on how many submit claims,” Charney said.

So what exactly was accomplished here? Well, from the former players’ standpoint, they managed to create a ton of awareness around this issue and give a clearer picture of how much these players are expected to sacrifice for a chance to advance their careers. And it also brought into focus that some of these teams make an enormous amount of money. And while they didn’t succeed in persuading lawmakers to pay players a minimum wage this time, governments change. So there’s no guarantee some of these provincial governments won’t overturn the rulings their predecessors made. And the CHL is not out of the legal woods yet because it still has a class-action concussion lawsuit with which to deal.

“The players fought this case very hard and they did the best they could,” Charney said. “There was a limit to what they could do. It was a big wake-up call to (junior hockey operators) and there was a lot of attention brought to them. They were under the microscope for a very long time. No one had been able to actually been able to access the way that they really operate to the extent that we did for the financial disclosures…we really got the first insight into what has otherwise been a very closed community. And I think there will be repercussions for that for years to come and I think the leagues will try to improve their relationships with the players in part because of this class action.”

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