Bills in Olympia would exempt the Western Hockey League and its young players from labor laws that the league is under investigation for violating.

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OLYMPIA — The four general managers of Washington’s Western Hockey League (WHL) teams and the league’s commissioner traveled to Olympia last month to send the message that without legislation to exempt the league from labor laws, such as paying players minimum wage, the teams might have to leave the state.

The WHL, a 22-team for-profit Canadian junior hockey league for athletes mostly ages 16-20, has operated in Washington since 1977 without an exemption.

But the league is under investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) for possible child-labor violations, and before a ruling is made, the league is seeking help from the Legislature. So far, lawmakers are saying yes.

Washington’s four WHL teams

Seattle ThunderbirdsEverett SilvertipsTri-City AmericansSpokane Chiefs

Details of the 2013 complaint lodged with L&I have not been disclosed, but a finding from the agency could decide whether WHL players are considered employees under state law.

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“Out of the blue our players were being examined as if they should be considered employees rather than amateur hockey players,” said Seattle Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell at a House hearing, where he appealed for the exemption.

In Olympia, discourse has been one-sided.

House Bill 1930 and Senate Bill 5893 — backed by a bipartisan coalition that includes pro-labor Democrats — passed the House Labor Committee unanimously and the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee without any “no” votes. No opponents testified at either committee hearing. SB 5893 won Senate approval Tuesday by a 47-0 vote.

Outside of the Capitol, some have found reason to object. Class-action lawsuits have been filed in Canada by former junior hockey players against the WHL and other junior leagues in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) umbrella.

Ted Charney, a Canadian labor lawyer representing plaintiffs in two suits, said lawmakers shouldn’t decide the relationship between the WHL and its players relying only on testimony from the WHL when there’s an ongoing investigation into the league based on laws designed to protect minors.

“I think it’s extremely unusual for the Legislature to step in,” Charney said.

Representatives from the league, which has teams in Spokane, Kent, Kennewick and Everett, argued its players are not professional employees, but amateur athletes. The WHL provides its players with room, board, $50-a-week stipends and opportunities for full-ride college scholarships.

Robert and Amy McCormick, emeritus professors of law at Michigan State University, investigated the lives of NCAA football and basketball players for a legal analysis in 2006 and determined the athletes are employees. They said that they see similarity between the WHL players and student athletes in the NCAA and that lawmakers should hear from current and former WHL players.

“The average person doesn’t really know what [NCAA athletes] are facing, what their lives are like on a daily basis,” Amy McCormick said.

State Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, a House sponsor, acknowledged some players may be scared to come forward with complaints.

He said passing a law now is appropriate because the investigation means L&I now considers WHL athletes to be employees. If L&I’s assumption isn’t valid, Sells said, it’s up to the Legislature to exempt the league.

L&I spokesman Matt Erlich said part of the investigation is “determining if Washington’s child-labor laws apply to the league.”

If the exemption becomes law, it would affect the league going forward, but the WHL would be subject to any fines and penalties that could stem from the current investigation.

This is the first time the league has asked for an exemption from Washington’s labor laws, according to Corey St. Laurent, a WHL spokesman.

“The new bill will provide the clarity that will remove the uncertainty for our clubs moving forward,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said in an interview.

Robison had no estimate of how much paying minimum wage would cost the league. He said at a Senate hearing that before factoring in the cost of paying players, WHL teams are already “very challenged to be in a position to continue to operate.”

Also, if WHL players became subject to labor laws like minimum wage, 16- and 17-year-olds could work up to 20 hours a week without special waivers granted by L&I. That might not be enough time for full participation in a WHL schedule, which usually includes two to three games a week, plus practice and travel during the season. Erlich said waivers usually don’t allow more than 32 hours of work.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, the primary sponsor of SB 5893, said he hadn’t discussed alternative solutions to the WHL’s concerns such as, partial exemptions or tweaks to labor laws.

Fain said SB 5893 was the most “expeditious” route.

On the ice

Luke Walter, 22, is a plaintiff in one of Charney’s class-action suits. He played for the Tri-City Americans for two years and in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (part of the CHL umbrella) for one.

Walter claims in the lawsuit, filed in November 2014 in Calgary, that he worked, on average, 35 to 40 hours a week and occasionally up to 65 hours, including travel time, with no hourly wages, overtime pay, holiday pay or other benefits.

“We were made to act like pros … we do all this stuff which pros do,” Walter said in an interview. “You’re getting paid a little bit of money right? That’s professional.”

Beyond the hours and pay (which disqualify a WHL athlete from NCAA hockey eligibility), Walter said the quality of hockey is high enough in the WHL to be considered professional. Walter cited Mathew Dumba, a defenseman for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild who played 26 games for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks in the 2013-14 season and 13 games for the Wild.

Walter said the scholarships the WHL promises (players get a year of tuition at the college of their choice and books for each season they play in the WHL) aren’t always practical to utilize, and athletes are left with little in return for their time with the league when they don’t use a scholarship.

Access to a scholarship expires 18 months after a player’s last year of possible WHL eligibility. Former WHL players can play college hockey in Canada, but it’s generally not as high a level as the NCAA and is usually not a steppingstone to the NHL. So for players who aren’t as talented as a Dumba but still want to pursue professional hockey, an extended stint in other leagues can disqualify them from their scholarship.

“It’s pretty much either take the school or keep on trying to play hockey and then your school is gone,” Walter said.

St. Laurent from the WHL said about half the league’s players use their scholarships.

Walter is working for his father in Vancouver, but said he plans to enroll in college before his scholarship expires.

“I loved junior hockey and everything but I figured it wasn’t worth taking that risk and getting rid of my school,” he said. “Why don’t they give the players a year, and if they don’t use the school within a year, you cut them a check for whatever their school is worth?”

Labor-backed

Charney and the McCormicks see the bills as a labor issue. Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, is actively trying to organize junior hockey players in Canada.

Robert McCormick said he thought WHL athletes “have a stronger case that they’re employees” versus NCAA players, who he said are “unquestionably employees within the law.”

“[WHL players] are not getting degrees or that kind of classroom experience from these particular employers,” he said. “It’s just a promise for future scholarships.”

Some of Washington’s prominent Democratic labor leaders have supported the proposed exemption. Sells, the House Labor Committee chairman, and Labor Committee member Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, are among the lawmakers signed on to the bill.

“This is something that will maintain opportunities for our amateur athletes and help them advance their careers,” said state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, a bill sponsor. “I think it’s a pretty strong collection of folks from those (organized labor) areas who are collectively saying we don’t want to take anything away.”

Six sponsors of HB 1930 and its Senate companion also sponsored bills to raise Washington’s minimum wage. Of those six, five live in or near Spokane and Everett, where WHL teams are located.

Riccelli said he didn’t want the Spokane Chiefs to leave his city and had no qualms about exempting the league from labor laws. “I’m proud of my record with labor,” Riccelli said. “To me this is common sense to maintain the status quo.”

Charney said the WHL is asking for a “get-out -of-jail-free card,” when it can afford to pay minimum wage and keeping jobs would not justify potential child-labor violations.

The Quebec Remparts, a team in the QMJHL, was reported by The Hockey News to have sold for $20 million to $25 million in November 2014. Average attendance this year as of late February for the Seattle Thunderbirds was 4,352, and tickets range from $8 to $40. An average roster has about 25 active players.

“The [lawmakers] are thinking that ‘these kids are lucky to be playing hockey, they’re privileged, they’re maybe going to get a chance to play in the NHL,’” Charney said. “They have to put aside their allegiances to these teams as fans and understand that this is a business and see how horribly underpaid these kids are.”