Debate Over Whether OHL Players Should Be Paid

It appears the Ontario government is siding with the Ontario Hockey League when it comes to the debate of paying junior hockey players.

OHL Commissioner David Branch sent a letter to the provincial government on Monday as an effort to keep the league's 425 players under the title of amateur athletes, and not allow them to potentially become employees regulated by provincial employment standards legislation, like some people are trying to make happen.

The government responded to Branch's letter on Thursday, with Michael Tibollo, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, offering support.

"I want you to know, that our government is behind you," said Tibollo. "We are going to do everything in our capacity to grow and support the Ontario Hockey League and junior hockey across our province.

Branch, who also serves as president of the Canadian Hockey League, which the OHL is part of along with the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has always considered major junior players -- typically ranging from 16 to 20 years old -- as student athletes.

Players are currently eligible for post-secondary school scholarships, with each season spent in the league being worth one year of tuition, books and compulsory fees. Players also get money for out-of-pocket expenses, equipment, billeting and travel costs while on a CHL roster.

"To us it's the best scholarship program in North America, it's the hallmark of our player experience," said Branch, in the letter to the government. "In addition we have concussion management, mental health programs, we do drug education and anti-doping. We have taken a position in what we believe the right thing to do is -- that's to help develop our players."

But not everyone agrees with Branch.

In 2014 Toronto lawyer Ted Charney filed a $180-million lawsuit against the CHL on behalf of all current and many former players for outstanding wages, overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay.

If the Ontario court system rules in favour of the players, Branch said it could put some teams out of business while the programs currently being offered would have to be re-evaluated.

If players were to be paid the $14 hourly minimum wage in Ontario for a 40-hour work week over an eight-month season, it would cost the OHL somewhere in the range of $8 million a year.

The letter addressed to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Tibollo, says that there were 321 OHL graduates using their scholarship at a cost of $3.125 million in 2017-18. This year, teams also spent $475,000 on scholarships for current players.

The OHL's move came after virtually all other jurisdictions in which CHL teams play have reviewed this issue and already passed exemptions/clarifications, including Quebec, New Brunswick, B.C, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, as well as Washington and Michigan.

"I want to reassure the OHL and the people of Ontario that we are actively looking at providing this clarity to the OHL and we will have more to say in the coming weeks,” added Tibollo.

 

—with files from the Canadian Press