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Hockey Inquiry Turns On Whether Players Are 'Student Athletes' Or Workers

Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network

The Western Hockey League opens its regular season next weekend. The players you'll see on the ice are mostly teenagers. That fact has state labor investigators asking if the four Washington teams are breaking child labor laws.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries says it can't disclose at this time whose complaint spurred it to open the hockey investigation. The affected teams are the Seattle Thunderbirds, Everett Silvertips, Tri-City Americans and Spokane Chiefs. Their players fall between 16 and 20 years old.

Labor and Industries agency spokesman Matthew Erlich says 16 and 17 year olds are covered by child labor laws.

"We can't go into the specifics of the case, but often it involves whether the youths are working too many hours during a school year, whether they are receiving enough education time,” he said.

There is also the question of whether the youths should be paid at least the minimum wage.

The local teams under investigation referred all questions to the hockey league's head office in Calgary. Through a spokesman, WHL commissioner Ron Robison declined an interview. But he emailed a statement in which he said the Washington clubs have explained to the state that their players should be viewed as "student athletes," not professional workers.

Robison warned that "undoubtedly any changes to the status of junior hockey players could impact the status of other amateur athletes in the state as well."

The WHL has 22 teams spread across western Canada and the northwestern U.S. The American teams are all for-profit businesses. They charge their fans admission to attend games in arenas that seat thousands of spectators.

WHL players receive free food and board and are eligible for full-ride college scholarships if they don't advance directly to the professional hockey ranks. Teen players from out-of -town typically attend a local high school and live with a host family.

The league website states that, "players do receive a very modest monthly stipend while playing in the WHL, which provides them with spending money that they cannot earn in part-time jobs due to the time commitments of school and hockey."

Former junior hockey players have blogged that their allowances started around $50 per week and increased with each year of seniority.

By any measure, dividing the stipend by the hours spent in practice, travel and roughly three games per week results in a pay rate well below Washington's current minimum wage of $9.32 per hour. From Robison's viewpoint, "our players are student athletes playing in a developmental hockey league, and participating in and contributing to their sport the same way as other amateur athletes."

The WHL takes pride in serving as a significant talent supplier to the National Hockey League, where former junior players can earn sizable signing bonuses and earn millions of dollars over the course of a professional career.

Oregon's junior hockey team, the Portland Winterhawks, are not the subject of an active investigation according that state's Bureau of Labor and Industries. "We are aware of the allegations and are monitoring them closely, including being in touch with other state enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor," wrote BOLI spokesman Charlie Burr in an email.

Erlich said there is "no timeframe" for completion of his state's investigation. Erlich said the inquiry started in 2013.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.