Judge certifies class action against WHL

CALGARY — An Alberta judge has ruled that a class-action lawsuit against the Western Hockey League may proceed, making it the second such case against a major junior league in Canada.

The suit contends that WHL players have been paid less than the minimum wage required by law in their regions and asks for back wages, overtime and vacation pay.

Alberta Justice R.J. Hall granted certification to the lawsuit with some conditions on Thursday. He ruled players with the WHL’s five U.S. teams — four in Washington and one in Oregon — were exempt from the class action because they are out of the court’s jurisdiction.

Lukas Walter, who played two seasons with the Tri-City Americans based in Kennewick, Wash., was recognized as the representative plaintiff.

The suit argues the standard agreements players sign pay them as little as $35 per week for between 40 to 65 hours of work. The WHL’s position is the players are “amateur student-athletes” and that it cannot afford to pay the players minimum wage on top of the benefits they receive, which include post-secondary scholarships.

The allegations contained in the suit have not been proven in court.

The lawsuit parallels one brought against the Ontario Hockey League that got the green light from the Ontario Supreme Court on April 27.

Sam Berg, a former Niagara IceDogs forward, and Daniel Pachis, a former member of the Oshawa Generals, were recognized as the representative plaintiffs in that case.

A similar suit against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is still pending, with Walter, who played one season with the Saint John Sea Dogs, also acting as the representative plaintiff.

The three major junior hockey leagues, featuring a combined 60 teams of players between the ages of 16 and 20, fall under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League.

“This was a procedural decision only and makes no determination regarding the merits of the claim and, in particular, the status of WHL players,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robson in a statement. ”The claim fundamentally misunderstands the nature of amateur sport, including major junior hockey. We believe players are not employees but amateur athletes, and we believe our case is strong.”

The WHL maintains that their position has been endorsed by governments in the majority of jurisdictions where its teams are located.

“The provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia along with the State of Washington have adopted exemptions to their employment standards acts clarifying that WHL players are amateur athletes,” said Robson. ”The WHL expects all other provincial and state jurisdictions will also pass similar exemptions in the near future.”

Both the OHL and WHL claim that several of their teams would fold if they were forced to pay their players minimum wage.

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