Ontario government appears to support OHL’s attempt to classify players as amateurs, student athletes

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As the OHL seeks to classify players as amateurs or student athletes, thus receiving an exemption from labor laws that would force players to be paid at least minimum wage, it appears the major junior circuit will receive the support of Ontario’s government.

Michael Stubbs fends off Nikita Okhotyuk|Graig Abel/Getty Images

It should come as absolutely no surprise that it appears the Ontario government has quickly and unconditionally thrown its support behind the Ontario League’s attempts to prevent its players from making minimum wage. This is the same government that, early in its mandate, effectively killed Bill 148, which would have raised the minimum wage from $14 an hour to $15 an hour, along with granting two paid sick days, 10 emergency leave days and pay equity for casual and part-time workers. It was a move that prompted the president of the Ontario Federation of Labor to declare premier Doug Ford, “an enemy of workers.”

When Ford’s right wing Progressive Conservative party gained power with a majority government in June, it was the best news the OHL and its owners could have hoped to get. The OHL, along with the Western and Quebec Leagues, have been fighting for their right to continue to classify players as amateurs or student-athletes, which gives them an exemption from labor laws. In fact, OHL commissioner Dave Branch wrote an open letter to Ford and Micheal Tibollo, the minister for tourism, culture and sport, saying that, “The CHL has been working with provincial governments across Canada and state governments in the U.S. to confirm that our players are amateur athletes and not employees regulated by employment standards legislation.” Branch notes that such exemptions have already been granted in Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and British Columbia in Canada and Washington and Michigan in the United States. “The Commissioner and the Board of Governors of the OHL is calling on the Ontario Government to, as soon as possible, provide a clarification similar to those in the nine other jurisdictions,” Branch’s letter states.

And it looks as though the Ontario government will be only too happy to do just that. “I want you to know, that our government is behind you,” Tibollo told reporters. “We are going to do everything in our capacity to grow and support the Ontario Hockey League and junior hockey across our province. 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.”

It’s interesting to note that just over two months after Ford’s party won the election, Branch registered himself as a lobbyist with the government’s Office of the Integrity Commissioner. On Sept. 13, Branch was registered as an In-House (Organizational) lobbyist, which is described by the office as, “an employee or group of employees who collectively spend at least 50 hours in a calendar year lobbying on behalf of a not-for-profit organization.” Robert Bayne, who serves as general counsel for the league, is registered as a consultant lobbyist.

Branch also wrote in his letter to Ford that, “Our players, together with their parents and with the support of player agents, enter and continue to play in the OHL clearly understanding that they are participating in amateur athletics.”

That was clearly news to some of the agents contacted by TheHockeyNews.com. Of the 10 agents contacted, six said they do not support the notion that major junior players are amateurs. Just one supported it, while three others did not offer a firm opinion.

All but one of the agents contacted requested anonymity, with the only one willing to go on the record being Allan Walsh, who sent out a tweet expressing indignation over the feeling that the OHL was speaking for him. “They used to issue T-4s (for income tax purposes) to all players until the claims of minimum wage arose,” Walsh said. “Then when they changed it to student athletes called it a stipend.”

TheHockeyNews.com tried to contact a cross-section of agents, including those based in both the United States and Canada, those who have a high number of current and former major junior players as clients and those who don’t, and even several who played major junior hockey themselves. Regardless of what side they took, they acknowledged it is a complex issue because of the economies of scale and the possible damage a minimum wage mandate might do for teams that struggle to survive. Several saw a disconnect between the value that major junior franchises have and what they pay their players.

“I see no benefit of this group that is trying to push for a union and minimum wage,” one agent said. “I think that’s going to be worse for the players. Back in the day you had to battle for everything and you don’t have those battles anymore. All my guys, their education gets paid and they don’t have any problems. In some cases, the team went even further than they had to go.”

In the letter, Branch pointed out that in 2017-18, 321 former players were using scholarships that cost the league a total of $3.1 million. Based on a season lasting from September to March and rosters of 18 players per team, if the league were forced to pay its players $14 an hour based on a 40-hour work week, the minimum cost to the league would be about $5.1 million, not including playoffs. “They’re basically saying that it would hurt their industry to pay the players minimum wage,” another agent said. “And they say, ‘We pay them by giving them academic funding.’ So, what about McDonald’s and Harvey’s and Home Depot? Can they lobby the government to get students to work for free subject to education funding? Of course they can’t.”

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