NHL, junior hockey leagues part of ‘conspiracy’ to exploit teenage players, $825M lawsuit alleges
|Toronto Star 15 Sep 2020 at 22:31|
A proposed $825 million class-action claim alleges a conspiracy among the world’s top professional and amateur hockey leagues to exploit dream-chasing teenage players with one-sided contracts containing abusive restrictions on their young careers.
The claim, filed by the former junior hockey player Kobe Mohr seeking to represent potentially thousands of others over the past 10 years, takes aim at hockey’s power establishment: the National Hockey League (NHL); the American Hockey League (AHL); the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL), all under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL); and the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL).
The proposed claim, which has not yet been certified, alleges a “system of hockey leagues” in Canada and the U.S. in which “the overwhelming majority of players will never reach the well-paid top professional leagues, but rather spending numerous years playing for nominal sums of money, all to the financial advantage of the defendants.”
In interviews, two agents and a lawyer who played in the Ontario Hockey League said the proposed lawsuit raises important issues they witnessed in their decades in hockey.
The Star sought comment from all of the leagues on Tuesday, sharing with them a copy of the newly-filed claim.
Through a spokesperson, the CHL — comprised of the OHL, QMJHL and WHL — declined to comment.
“We have not yet been served with a statement of claim,” reads a written statement. “ At such time as we receive one, we will thoroughly review it and if appropriate we will provide further comment.”
The American Hockey League also declined to comment. The NHL and ECHL did not respond to the Star’s request for comment by deadline.
The claim alleges the CHL’s 60 junior hockey teams across Canada and the U.S. — the primary training ground for the NHL — pays their approximately 1,500 players aged 16 to 20 low wages as part of restrictive contracts they sign as minors. Those contracts undermine players’ ability to negotiate for better pay or organize a collective bargaining agreement, in violation of Canada’s Competition Act, the claim alleges.
“(The leagues) have arranged to get (players) signing contracts of adhesion with junior hockey clubs once they are drafted but failed to disclose (to) them all the restrictions,” the claim reads.
Those restrictions include “abusive fees” as high as $500,000 for a player to leave their junior club and move to a team in a professional league such as the American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League, the statement claims.
“I don’t think it’s right to impose restrictions on a player that demands a $500,000 release fee to be paid to the club if the player wishes to pursue other opportunities in other leagues around the world,” said Mohr, 21, who until last season played on four different teams over five seasons in the Western Hockey League.
“For far too long, athletes’ rights in the CHL have been silent. The culture needs to change. This is the first step.”
With the tight restrictions on junior player career paths, going anywhere other than the NHL was an impossibility for Mohr.
And that dream ended last year when his junior coach called him to a meeting 20 minutes before the team was scheduled to show up at the rink.
“It was crushing,” he says of the conversation during which he was told he was being cut. “I’ll never forget that day. You pack up and say your goodbyes. I knew that was it.”
More than half of NHL players come from the CHL, making it the single biggest source of professional hockey players in the world.
The NHL is named in the claim as a participant in the alleged conspiracy, in part, through an agreement with the CHL in which NHL clubs pay “bonuses” to CHL teams when their players are drafted, “cementing thus the unlawful arrangements in force,” the claim reads.
Close ties between the NHL, the junior CHL leagues and the lower-tier professional AHL and ECHL serve to control player destinies, says Felix-Antoine Michaud, a Montreal lawyer who filed the claim.
“You have one choice as a North American player — you play for the NHL or you play for free,” he said in an interview. “If you are not drafted at 18, you can’t go play in the American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League. The NHL makes it impossible for players (to) sell their work elsewhere. These players have no right to choose where they go.”
Many players who generate hockey club profits are often “marginalized” and left with little to show after their playing days, said Michael Mazzuca, a Toronto lawyer who played in the OHL for four years.
“I see this (lawsuit) as a progressive step forward,” he said after reviewing the claim. “Players are not paid a fair wage when you look at what coaches and general managers and trainers are being paid.”
Junior hockey players earn wages that can amount to a few dollars a day for what can often be full-time work weeks with games, practices, off-ice training and travel — with no provisions for overtime, vacation or holiday pay.
Mohr, for example, says he earned $185 every two weeks for most of his junior career — or less than $100 a week.
The CHL has long argued that its players are amateurs taking part in training to pursue their dream of a professional career in hockey and that the league and its teams are not profitable enough to pay higher wages without threatening its business model.
In addition to the weekly stipends, players receive room and board, travel expenses and an “education package” in the form of scholarship money for future education should they choose to attend.
But the educational funding is rescinded when a player signs a professional contract. And there have been long-standing complaints about players’ ability to access the funds, as previous Star investigations reported and against the CHL alleged.