Current and former junior hockey players have filed what one employment lawyer calls a “genius lawsuit” seeking millions in wages and other compensation from the Canadian Hockey League.

At issue is whether the players are employees as defined by employment labour laws, says employment lawyer Daniel Lublin of employment firm Whitten & Lublin.

A statement of claim filed last week in a Toronto court says the players are seeking some $180 million in wages, vacation, holiday and overtime pay, as well as employer payroll contributions.

The lawsuit, obtained by the Toronto Star, alleges that the league and its teams “conspired” to get players to sign contracts that contravene minimum wage laws.

The suit says players were paid a weekly wage of $35 and up for games, practices, training and travel time, all of which could be viewed as making up a full-time work day.

The Star quotes the suit as saying that the CHL and its teams acted “in concert” to get players to sign contracts that they knew to be “unlawful.”

“Such conduct was high-handed, outrageous, reckless, wanton, deliberate, callous, disgraceful, wilful and in complete disregard for the rights of the (players).”

None of the allegations contained in the lawsuit have been proven in court.

First known case for players

Lublin said the suit does not mark the first time that employees have sought unpaid wages and overtime. However, it is the first known case filed on behalf of junior hockey players.

“The definition of an employee is someone who works for wages, which seems pretty broad and would generally capture the type of relationship we’re looking at here,” Lublin told CTV News Channel on Monday.

The CHL can try to argue that the players are either independent contractors, or are participating in a type of low-wage internship program, he said.

However, any worker that is in a contractual relationship but is not an employee has the right to say when and how he or she will perform the job, he said.

“I don’t believe these players can show up at the rink in the morning and tell their coach or general manger, ‘I think I’ll play centre today instead of left wing,’ or, ‘I don’t think I’ll take the morning skate,’” Lublin said.

“I think they’re told what to do and how to do it and they’re paid for it, and I see them as employees under the legislation.”

The players should be paid minimum wage, at least, he said, and receive overtime.

The CHL comprises 60 teams across three leagues: the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Player compensation varies depending on which league they are playing in, their age and other factors, according to the lawsuit. OHL players are paid between $50 and $120, the lawsuit states, for up to 65 hours of work per week.

The lawsuit alleges that team owners rake in millions of dollars off the efforts of their players.

Lublin says he likes the players’ case.

“I think it’s a genius lawsuit,” he said.

Can of worms ‘is already open’

Lublin notes that the league argues players receive housing and other expenses, and can qualify for post-secondary tuition assistance. However, some players find it difficult to apply for that assistance, or don’t qualify at all, he said.

Asked if the lawsuit opens a can of worms, Lublin replied: “I think that can of worms is already open. The fact is, if people are employed and working 40 or 44 hours of work each week, they should be paid in accordance with the law.”