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Class action lawsuit filed against CHL leaves players split

When a group of former players launched a $180-million lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) last week, it wasn’t met with a united front. The lawsuit, which claims the CHL violates Canada’s minimum wage regulations, seeks outstanding wages, overtime and vacation pay.

Spencer Abraham, formerly of the OHL’s Erie Otters and Brampton Battalion, now with Queen’s University, took to his Twitter account to express his thoughts on the lawsuit. The education, life skills and connections made through the CHL provides are worth more than any job, he said.

If successful, the lawsuit could have damaging consequences on the CHL’s structure and operation, potentially creating a rippling effect for other for-profit leagues at the junior, collegiate or inter-university level.

Each of the three commissioners involved at the CHL level – David Branch of the OHL, Gilles Courteau of the QMJHL and Ron Robinson of the WHL – have already spoken out, standing together against the lawsuit.

“The CHL is about the opportunity and pursuit of the dream to play pro hockey, and if that doesn’t work out, them paying for your education is more than a sufficient alternative,” Abraham said in an interview on Wednesday. “The benefits the CHL provides for its players are far more beneficial than an employee’s wage.”

Despite having some of the worst travel time in the OHL due to Erie’s location, Abraham said he feels it’s “ridiculous” to say the CHL takes advantage of his players. 

“They use the money they make to put it into state of the art facilities, high end training equipment, the best coaches, and the best trainers to give their players the best opportunity possible to play pro hockey,” he said. The team also provided physiotherapy, dentistry, chiropractic work, he added.

Adamant the support didn’t stop there, Abraham said that beyond the standard $50 a week that the OHL provides each player, the league also supported him, last season alone, with money for gas (an additional $50 a week), Bauer skates, 25 top of the line Reebok hockey sticks, hockey gloves, nine months worth of living expenses for his billets ($400 a month), one year’s tuition and books (valued at $6,800), 33 nights in a hotel, 90 post and pre-game meals on the road, 30 breakfast meals, stays at hotels, a tracksuit, Reebok running shoes, protective equipment, workout attire, healthcare in the United State due to Erie’s location, a Christmas gift and bonuses based on team performance.  

“The only expenses I had were personal items like clothes, eating out, and sometimes extra gas if I were to drive somewhere other than the rink,” Abraham said, adding that he didn’t pay for rent, utilities, Internet, long distance calls or food.

Robbie De Fulviis, who spent two seasons with Rouyn-Noranda and Rimouski in the QMJHL before joining the University of Guelph, stands with Abraham.

“I think the lawsuit is a bit ridiculous,” De Fulviis said, adding that he had great support from the QMJHL and his billet families in both destinations. “Many teams go through a large process in selecting their billet families in order to make their players feel more comfortable in environments they are definitely not used to.”

Not all players have the same experiences with the care or support provided by the billet families with the funds they receive from the CHL.

“There’s been times I haven’t had enough money to buy a sub for dinner and have had nothing at the billets,” said one current CHL player who asked to be kept anonymous due to the pending trial.

“It really depends on the organization. There are some [billets] that you would never picture having a player. It’s shocking,” the player added, noting that he had offers to go to prep schools that could have bridged to getting a scholarship. “If I could rewind time, I would rather go the school route. When you’re 15 [years old], you’re not really looking at school, so you go with what you have. Not all players come from money. Players should be paid more.”

De Fulviis, however, is confident team ownerships, staff, and the CHL’s commissioners have the players’ best interests at heart.

“Commissioner Branch has done great things regarding his players and their scholarship money,” he said.

What’s clear is that the players aren’t all on the same page.