Junior hockey employment lawsuit on thin ice; judges refuse to OK $30-million deal

Hockey settlement rejected

A $30-million settlement of three class actions over the alleged failure to pay junior hockey players the minimum wage has been thrown into jeopardy after three judges refused to sign off on the agreement.

In their decisions, the judges in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta objected to wording in the settlement they said was too broad and could prevent the players from pressing other legitimate claims.

More precisely, Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell said, class members would get an average of about $8,400 but could end up barred from suing leagues for damages related to concussions, sexual assaults or physical harassment, or alleged anti-competitive behaviour.

"Class members may be foreclosed from suing the defendants in other class actions for compensation for significant injuries," Perell said. "A release of the claims in those other actions makes the settlement in the immediate case an improvident settlement and one that is not fair and reasonable, nor in the best interests of the class members."

The plaintiffs in the three lawsuits alleged the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and their affiliated clubs — all operate under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League — failed to treat them as employees.

According to the plaintiffs, some players were paid as little as $35 per week for working between 35 and 65 hours weekly. The leagues, they asserted, should have paid them minimum wage, overtime pay, and provided other employment benefits.

The first lawsuit, launched in Ontario in 2014, sought about $175 million in outstanding compensation.

In response, the leagues argued, among other things, that the players were amateur athletes and not employees. Nevertheless, in March, the leagues agreed after mediation to pay $30 million to settle the lawsuits — with about $9 million going to the players' lawyers.

The settlement was set for court approval when two representative plaintiffs — Kobe Mohr and Anthony Poulin — objected to the wording of the final release, which would insulate the leagues from any related lawsuits in the future.

As a result of the objection, the courts learned of other actions against the Canadian Hockey League, including one filed in British Columbia over player concussions. Another filed in Ontario alleges players younger than 18 suffered sexual abuse, while a third in Federal Court alleges various leagues engaged in anti-competitive practices.

"To be blunt about it, in the immediate case, in my opinion, once the 11th-hour objection arrived, class counsel should have withdrawn their motion for settlement approval until the matter of the prejudicial scope of the release was resolved," Perell said. "What is required is a renegotiation of the release provisions of the settlement agreement."

In a similar ruling, Justice Robert Hall of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench leaned on Perell's analysis for refusing to go along with the settlement.

"The class members cannot be unwittingly releasing the defendants from other claims beyond the one being settled," Hall wrote. Quebec Superior Court Justice Chantal Corriveau expressed similar sentiments.

The judges did say the parties could reapply for settlement approval after fixing the issue with the release given that the other provisions of the deal were reasonable.

If an agreement isn't reached on the release, the settlement could be terminated within weeks and lead to a resumption of the litigation.

Neither the Canadian Hockey League nor plaintiffs' counsel had any immediate response.

Kelowna Rockets loan two players to Manitoba Junior League teams

2 Rockets on loan to Jr. A

Two members of the Kelowna Rockets have been loaned to teams in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

The two, forwards Dallon Wilton (Neepawa Natives) and Jake Poole (Virden Oil Capitals), will play for those respective teams until Dec. 20.

With teams in the Western Hockey League shut down until Jan. 8, the league has given its blessing to allow the transfer of players to Junior A, Junior B and under-18 programs until training camps begin after Christmas.

The Rockets two goaltenders, Roman Basran and Cole Schwebius suited up for the BCHL West Kelowna Warriors on an emergency basis this past weekend.

The WHL announced earlier this month it plans to begin its 2020-2021 season Jan. 8.

The WHL continues to work with each of the Governments and Health Authorities in the Provinces and States in Western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, respectively, on obtaining the necessary approvals to commence play.

The CHL, which oversees the three major junior leagues in the country, suspended operations March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The entire regular season and playoffs, including the Memorial Cup, were eventually cancelled.

BCHL teams have been playing exhibition games since late September.

They hope to be able to begin a new season in early December.

To date, only one player within the BCHL, a member of the Surrey Eagles, has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Matthew Wedman signs AHL contract

Ex-Rocket inks pro deal

Former Kelowna Rocket forward Matthew Wedman is ready to start his professional career..

Wedman signed a one-year contract with the American Hockey League's Charlotte Checkers Monday.

The announcement was made by Florida Panthers GM Bill Zito. The Checkers are the AHL affiliate of the Panthers.

Wedman, acquired from the Seattle Thunderbirds in December, was named the Rockets Most Valuable Player, despite only suiting up for 35 games.

During that span, he posted 17 goals and 19 assists.

Originally selected by Florida in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL draft, Wedman amassed 211 points, including 92 goals, in 310 career WHL games.

The AHL announced back in the summer its intention to start a new season Dec. 4.

Western Hockey league will play with, or without fans

WHL in a COVID world

Owners of the 22 teams which make up the Western Hockey League will face "significant financial losses" during what will be an abbreviated regular season.

Just how deep those losses will be will be determined by health officials in the four provinces, plus Washington and Oregon state that lay claim to those teams.

After unveiling two tentative return to play dates, the WHL Wednesday announced it will definitely begin play Jan. 8.

During a conference call Thursday, league commissioner Ron Robison stated that, while the league hopes to meet its objective of having 50 per cent fan capacity by that date, he admits that may not happen everywhere, if at all.

"We recognize ultimately that will be determined by the health authorities through our discussions with them," said Robison.

"Those discussions are ongoing, and we're looking forward to getting some clarification on that soon. But, the number may be significantly lower than 50 per cent, given the health restrictions that apply in various provinces and states currently."

Robison says it will be a challenge for owners to navigate through the next several months, but doesn't believe any of the clubs are in danger of folding as a result.

"It's very difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. From an ownership perspective, I admire their commitment to the players, to get a season started, to work our way through this.

"But, there is going to be significant financial losses for all of our clubs without question."

Robison says the plan the league has laid out would include a maximum 50-game schedule concluding May 2.

Teams would play within their own divisions for the regular season to eliminate cross-border travel which is not allowed in many cases. The league is working with governments of both Saskatchewan and Manitoba to allow travel between provinces to accommodate teams within the Eastern Division, which include two clubs in Manitoba and five in Saskatchewan.

As for playoffs, Robison says the league hopes to be able to run a complete playoff schedule, but admits those discussions have not yet taken place internally.

"Of course, that will depend on the staging of the Memorial Cup, and the ability for us to have full inter-conference playoffs with the border opening...whether that will be in place at that time.

"We are going to have to make that decision later in the season."

With each of the six jurisdictions at different points in their recovery, Robison says the league is also wading through the different protocols in place in different provinces and sports in terms of cohorts and quarantining between games.

Those details, he says, are still being worked out.

While the league has not yet gone to various levels of government for financial assistance, Robison says that could change if fan capacity is less than what the league expects.

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