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Lawsuit alleges NHL, junior leagues working together to limit players' opportunities

File photo of the NHL logo. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Mark Humphrey

A proposed class-action lawsuit alleges North America’s most powerful hockey leagues are conspiring to limit opportunities for young players.

The claim was filed by Kobe Mohr, a 21-year-old Lloydminster, Alta., man who played for four teams in the Western Hockey League from 2015 to 2020.

The NHL, WHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, American Hockey League, ECHL and Hockey Canada are listed as defendants.

The WHL, OHL and QMJHL operate under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League.

The suit alleges the defendants participated in “an unlawful conspiracy, arrangement or agreement” to limit opportunities for Mohr and other Canadians to make a living playing pro hockey between the ages of 18 and 20.

The document claims the defendants have created a system where the overwhelming majority of players will never reach the top pro leagues, instead spending years playing for “nominal sums of money, all to the financial advantage of the defendants.”

The suit also says Mohr and players like him are not represented by players’ associations and are not free to organize a group to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. The lawsuit must be certified by the courts to become a class-action. No statements of defence have been filed.

The AHL declined to comment, while a CHL spokesman said the league has not received the document. None of the other organizations mentioned in the lawsuit was able to immediately provide a comment.

Mohr played 265 games in the WHL for the Edmonton Oil Kings, Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets and Moose Jaw Warriors.

He spent the majority of the 2019-20 in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but appeared in 18 games for the Rockets and Warriors.

The suit points to the structure of hockey in Europe and Russia, where pro clubs can sign young players to pro contracts and assign them to junior or reserve teams.

“Overall, Canadian-based players that are playing in major junior leagues have substantially less choices and freedom, if any, than European-based players, who have the opportunity to play in the AHL or ECHL before reaching the age of 20 and be paid a salary negotiated by a professional association,” the suit states.

The suit alleges the NHL and their teams pay bonuses to major junior clubs when their players are drafted, creating an unlawful arrangement between the defendants.

In May, the Canadian Hockey League settled three class-action lawsuits filed by current and former junior players seeking backpay for minimum wage.

The settlements amounted to a total of $30 million. Class members were compensated based on length of time – full, half or quarter seasons – in their respective leagues.

The CHL has always considered major junior players – typically ranging from 16 to 20 years old – student-athletes.

Players are currently eligible for post-secondary scholarships, with each season spent in the league worth one year of tuition, books and compulsory fees.

Players also get money for out-of-pocket expenses, equipment, billeting and travel costs while on a CHL roster.

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