Ex-players’ testimony paints unflattering picture of Western Hockey League

The expectation of an NHL franchise in Seattle likely will bring increased attention to the junior game in this area and some realities with which sports fans might be unfamiliar.

For one thing, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League play “major-junior” hockey, which is different from other junior levels in that players get paid a stipend and are not considered amateurs by the NCAA. In recent years, the pay given major-junior players ages 16 to 20 has been criticized as sub-minimum wage — often less than $100 per week — and exploitative toward minors in the United States and Canada.

The issue recently came to the forefront in Oregon, where owners of the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL unsuccessfully tried to have the state’s legislature categorize their players as amateurs. This was an attempted end run around demands Portland players be paid minimum wage and was being opposed by several organized labor unions.

Here in Washington, the state legislature in 2015 granted minimum-wage exemptions to the Kent-based Thunderbirds as well as the Silvertips, Tri-City Americans and Spokane Chiefs. The exemption declares major-junior players are not professionals and are being given the opportunity to develop important hockey skills.

But things didn’t go nearly as well for the Winterhawks in Oregon, where bill HB 4093 died in committee this month. Even worse from a public-relations standpoint for the Winterhawks and teams this side of the state line, the process included alarming testimony by former WHL players — including ex-Silvertips star center Tyler Maxwell and ex-Thunderbirds enforcer James McEwan. They argued WHL teams are for-profit entities that treat teenagers like pros and raised serious questions about the medical care and educational opportunities provided.

Maxwell, who played in Everett from 2008-09 to the 2011-12 season, testified he had planned to play college hockey until the Silvertips made “a very convincing presentation” about how the WHL was the fastest route to the NHL and offered a scholarship program if he didn’t make the pros. But major-junior players forfeit a season of NCAA eligibility for every game played, and Maxwell said Division I coaches urged him not to go that route.

He said WHL teams trick players ages 16-17 into signing contracts rife with “fine print and stipulations” and the scholarship money he was eligible for would barely cover 1 1/2 semesters at UCLA near his hometown of Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Maxwell testified he was forced to play seven games with a cracked patella after being struck by a slap shot and that the Silvertips refused to have X-rays taken. Later, after screaming at his coaches, he says he finally got X-rays revealing the break. But after only a few weeks’ healing time, he claims the Silvertips rushed him back for the playoffs.

“My knee still kills me to this day,” his testimony stated. “I toughed it out for the team and ended up setting playoff scoring records my rookie year.

“They wanted me back in the lineup to help them win their playoff round and sell tickets. People bought my jerseys, bobbleheads, autograph photos of me in our team store.”

The WHL scholarship fund is supposed to pay an amount equal to the yearly cost of university tuition, books and fees in a player’s hometown for every season of major-junior hockey played. Players can first play one season of minor pro hockey, but must activate the scholarship within 18 months of their junior careers ending.

Maxwell forfeited his scholarship by playing professionally in Europe and the East Coast Hockey League.

As for the high-school education received during his Silvertips career: “Teachers would say, ‘Score two goals, and I’ll give you an A. Give me a signed puck, and I’ll give you an A.’ I got Scholastic Player of the Year, and I took three courses my senior year.”

McEwan played for the Thunderbirds in 2004-05 and 2005-06 when at KeyArena. He estimated having 75 fights while with the T-birds and later the Kelowna Rockets, adding he suffered concussions from repeated blows to the head and two surgeries.

“Black eyes and stitches are worn with pride,” he testified. “I believed I was doing a good thing at the time, because, again, these were the adults I was told to listen to. That they would help me. I had no idea the damages this was causing until my early 20s when I started facing depression, mood swings and thoughts of suicide.”

He said he was unable to collect on the scholarship fund because he had pursued a pro career in the ECHL on the advice of coaches who never discussed the educational implications.

“They give big, shiny promises on education packages, yet have loopholes that prevent players from getting them,” McEwan testified.

The WHL is investigating.

Silvertips COO Zoran Rajcic said via text the Silvertips “are looking into all his (Maxwell’s) allegations and reporting back to the WHL.”

Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell, who was here when McEwan played, said the WHL hasn’t contacted the team as part of its investigation. Farwell said all players are given written explanations of the scholarship-program rules.

Two class-action lawsuits in Canada seek retroactive wages on behalf of current and some former major-junior players there. Players from U.S.-based teams have been ruled ineligible in either Canadian case, but fear of similar litigation or unionization efforts here is what has prompted major-junior teams to seek state minimum-wage exemptions.

Which means this hockey pros vs. amateurs debate likely will still be raging long after Seattle’s NHL franchise hits the ice.

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