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Northwest Hockey Teams Targeted By Lawsuit Over Player Wages

Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network

The pay and treatment of top Northwest hockey players is the subject of a new class action lawsuit that commenced earlier this week in Canada.

The suit is against the Western Hockey League and its sister leagues. Affected teams include Oregon and Washington-based Seattle Thunderbirds, Portland Winterhawks, Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans and Everett Silvertips.

The lawsuit seeks back wages, vacation pay and unpaid overtime allegedly due to current and former players at the top level of junior hockey. The mostly teenage players currently receive a weekly stipend, free room-and-board and college scholarships under a standard contract.

The lawsuit filed by Ontario attorney Ted Charney claims the players aren't being paid at least minimum wage.

"The class action will recover the wages that these young players are rightfully entitled to by law," said Charney.

But Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison argues the minimum wage law doesn't apply to these skaters.

"Our view of it is that we have an amateur athlete relationship,” Robison said. “We have student athletes largely in our league and of course, not an employment relationship as this case is claiming."

Robison said the monetary value of the various benefits junior hockey players receive "would quite frankly probably far exceed" what they could get under conventional worker status.

The lawsuit comes at the same time as a child labor probe by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries. That investigation -- limited to the four Washington teams -- is ongoing.

Charney said it could be six months to a year before a Canadian judge decides whether the new lawsuit can proceed as a class action. Jurisdictional challenges are a possibility according to Robison.

Speaking from Toronto, Charney asserted "there's nothing unusual" about a class action that reaches across international boundaries. "Cross-border cases happen all the time," he said. Charney noted the five Oregon and Washington-based teams play in a Canadian league with headquarters in Calgary.

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.