EDMONTON -- Alberta's five Western Hockey League teams will no longer be legally obligated to pay their players at least the minimum wage after the UCP government amended the province's labour code.

The changes are contained in an appendix to Bill 21, the Ensuring Fiscal Sustainability Act, which redefines Alberta-based WHL players as "amateur athletes" as opposed to employees.

"The intent of the change was simply to align our legislation with other Canadian jurisdictions, which have exempted either major junior hockey players or amateur athletes from employment standards rules," UCP spokesperson Brittany Baltimore wrote in an email to CTV News. 

"Defining the term 'employee' gives further clarity on who is entitled to employment standards benefits, such as minimum wage and overtime pay." 

British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the state of Washington all have similar legislation in effect. 

As a regulatory change, the new rules were made through an order in council which does not need to be voted on in the legislature. 

There are five Alberta-based major junior teams in the WHL: the Edmonton Oil Kings, Red Deer Rebels, Calgary Hitmen, Lethbridge Hurricanes and Medicine Hat Tigers. 

Major junior players are not paid minimum wage and instead receive weekly stipends of between $50 and $120.

In a statement to CTV News, the WHL says it commends the Government of Alberta for its decision to clarify the status of amateur athletes in Alberta.

“This decision confirms that our WHL players have always been amateur athletes and will allow WHL teams in Alberta, along with other amateur sports organizations, to continue to offer the opportunity for participants to compete in sport across the province,” said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison.


The new rule comes as the Canadian Hockey League -- parent league of the Ontario, Western and Quebec major junior leagues -- continues to face a $180-million class action lawsuit filed in 2014 over player pay. 

In the lawsuit, former players argue the junior leagues are for-profit businesses that don't afford players protection under employment laws and seeking outstanding wages for current and former players. 

The leagues argue players are amateur athletes while also citing the CHL's sponsored scholarship program that gives player access to post-secondary education after their junior career ends. 

In response to the updated Alberta regulations, the World Association of Ice Hockey Players Unions says the change "strips away the rights for young workers who desperately are in need of protection afforded to all other workers." 

"The only possible explanation for changing the ESA is to ensure that WHL teams will have mitigated their financial damages in the ongoing class action lawsuit."

In 2017, TSN reported on WHL team finances and found the Edmonton Oil Kings were the province's most profitable major junior team with 2016 revenue of $6.6 million and a profit of $1.4 million. The same report indicated the Calgary Hitmen had a 2016 revenue of $4.3 million but also a loss of nearly $400,000.

In an email to CTV News, Opposition labour critic Christina Gray called for "basic workplace protections and fair wages." 

"The UCP are removing entire classes of workers from the minimum employment standards, which includes protections regarding hours of work, wages, holidays and more."

The new provincial rules come into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

With files from Sean Amato​