Offline. Junior Hockey
Credit: Kagan McLeod

Workers in glamour industries often accept lower pay for a shot at the big time. Now junior hockey players are hitting back

“Someone hit the big score / They figured it out,” goes the Gillian Welch song “Everything Is Free.” “That we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay.”

Welch is referring to musicians and the curse of free downloads and streaming. But in Canada, she might as well be singing about young hockey players. Hockey, like music, doesn’t really pay unless you get to the top. In the Western Hockey League (playoffs take place this month), where the Vancouver Giants toil, players typically receive 50 bucks a week for what amounts to full-time employment—games, practices, training, travel and promotional appearances.

Thus the lawsuit launched in 2014 against the Canadian Hockey League (which includes the WHL). Attorney Ted Charney of Toronto law firm Charney Lawyers PC has applied for class action status on behalf of major junior players, seeking minimum wage, holiday pay and back pay. Charney wants CHL players to be recognized as employees. Certification hearings to rule on whether the case can proceed were scheduled for February and March.

As major junior hockey is to Canada, college football is to the United States, where the issue of paying college players has been a hot topic in recent years. Northwestern University players tried to form a union, a move that was blocked in 2015. The debate was whether players were students or employees, says Thomas Lemieux, director of the Vancouver School of Economics at UBC. The National Labor Relations Board ruled that players were mostly students and that universities didn’t have to pay them as employees. “One could not make this case for major junior hockey,” Lemieux adds. “These are not school teams, so it is hard to know on which grounds players should not be treated as employees and paid at least the minimum wage.”

But the Western Hockey League disagrees. Claiming financial hardship, the WHL asked the B.C. government to declare players student athletes and therefore not subject to minimum wage regulations. Last October, the province granted the exemption. According to Charney, this legislation doesn’t necessarily eliminate WHL players from the class action suit. Any who were active on a B.C. team before and after the legislation was passed are included, he says. Those who joined a B.C. team after the legislation passed may or may not be eligible for wages. “It is very unfortunate that the government of B.C. has intervened to deprive these boys and young men of the protections offered by employment standards legislation without even having their day in court,” says Charney.

Any glamorous profession, it seems, can entice the young to work for little or nothing in hopes of deferred fame, wealth and glory. TV stations and magazines often ask for free work, promising “exposure” (and inspiring the retort: “People die of exposure”). “It’s justifiable as long as the young person gets valuable training and benefits from the internship but provides little benefit to the employer,” Lemieux says. “Just replacing a regular employee with an intern during the summer does provide substantial benefits to the employer—in those circumstances the intern (must) be paid.”

Of course, playing major junior hockey can help players get into the National Hockey League, Lemieux notes, but this doesn’t change the fact that they’re employees who benefit their bosses financially, so they should be subject to minimum-wage laws.

Charney estimates the cost of paying major junior hockey players minimum wage at $300,000 per team, less than the $350,000 each franchise gets in revenue sharing from the NHL and Sportsnet. (Vancouver Giants tickets range from $19.50 to $30, plus service charges.)

But as hockey fans hasten to point out, big paydays are coming for these kids. And it’s true—for far less than one per cent of juniors. In their book Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession, Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels looked at 30,000 Ontario major junior players. Forty-eight were eventually drafted by NHL teams, 39 signed contracts, 32 actually played, and 15 lasted more than a season. The odds aren’t much better than those for street corner buskers who dream of winning Grammys.