Players’ lawyers fire back at OHL, Ontario government in $180M lawsuit fight

Lawyers representing players in a class-action lawsuit against the world’s premier major-junior hockey league are speaking out after Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government threw its support behind the Ontario Hockey League’s push to re-affirm its players as amateur athletes.

“It is apparent that the OHL . . . is putting its significant resources and its many powerful connections into a full-scale attempt to ensure that their players, unlike their other employees, are denied basic workers protection,” reads the letter signed by lawyers at Goldblatt Partners, one of the firms representing players in a $180-million class-action suit against the Canadian Hockey League, which includes the OHL.

The letter is addressed to Premier Doug Ford and cabinet ministers Michael Tibollo and Laurie Scott.

“We hope and trust that you will consider the plight of the junior hockey players, and not only the self-interested submissions of the owners,” the letter continues.

“In the class action, the players are seeking simply to be recognized as employees – employees entitled to the protection of existing minimum standard legislation – the entitlement to a minimum wage, overtime pay and other basic workplace protections that all other employees in Ontario enjoy.”

OHL Commissioner David Branch had penned his own open letter to Premier Doug Ford and Tibollo, the minister of tourism, culture and sport, asking the province to confirm its players as amateur athletes – a definition seen as a key factor in helping the OHL defend itself against the $180 million class-action lawsuit launched four years ago against the CHL, including the OHL, seeking back wages, overtime and vacation pay for players.

Tibollo responded Thursday in a letter saying the government takes “any threat to the future of junior and amateur hockey very seriously.”

“I want you to know, that our government is behind you. We are going to do everything in our capacity to grow and support the Ontario Hockey League and junior hockey across our province,” Tibollo wrote in the two-page letter to Branch and the OHL’s board of governors.

“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. I look forward to reaching out sometime in the very near future, with a solution that I am sure you, the league, the fans, the billets, and the players will all be happy with.”

In a recent Free Press interview, Branch said major junior hockey teams — some of which generate millions in revenue annually — could be overwhelmed if they lose the lawsuit, damaging the league’s status as the premier talent developer for the NHL.

But that’s not reason enough for players, who drive revenue for these teams, to continue to be exploited, the lawyers argue, pointing out junior hockey players in Ontario get paid an average of $50 per week for their services.

“Other multimillion-dollar employers don’t get to avoid paying the employees who drive their revenue. Paying wages is part of doing business. Why should the OHL be any different?” the letter says.

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