The Canadian Hockey League has long been the most consistent pipeline for the NHL's top talent.
Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and an abundance of other young phenoms all rose through the junior hockey ranks before becoming NHL stars, with league executives and scouts mining the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League for the best prospects in North America.
Recently, however, a collection of class-action lawsuits filed against the CHL in three Canadian provinces in which they have head offices, could threaten the top feeder league's very infrastructure with allegations that the CHL has violated labor laws in the treatment of its athletes.
The crux of the lawsuit, for which there is a class certification hearing in February, is that these players -- the vast majority of whom range from ages 16 to 20 years old -- are employees of their teams and deserve to be making a minimum wage. The CHL, however, contends that the players are instead "student athletes" who are guaranteed certain educational benefits and small weekly stipends.
According to the original complaint filed in October, obtained by ESPN.com, the suit alleges that the CHL contracts "violate the rights of the players under the Applicable Employment Standards Legislation with respect to minimum wages, vacation pay, holiday pay and overtime pay."
"The players are entitled to be compensated at statutory minimum hourly wage rates in the Province or State where the Player was employed for back wages, and back overtime pay, and back holiday pay and back vacation pay," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs, led by former junior hockey player Sam Berg, are seeking $160 million in damages in the suit.
"These kids devote 60-70 hours a week from [ages] 16-20 playing for these teams making somewhere around $50 a week,” said Toronto-based attorney Ted Charney, who is representing Berg and the plaintiffs in the case. "When the teams have revenues which can be in the millions of dollars in profits, lucrative television rights, corporate sponsorships with some of the biggest companies in Canada and the U.S., they are all in the business of making money. The only people not making wages are these kids playing hockey to make their dreams come true of making it to the NHL.”
And considering the small percentage of kids that actually do move on to the NHL, a lot of players get the short end of the deal, according to Charney.
"It all seems good to them while happening, but at the end of day, what do they have?" he asked. "These teams, we're not asking them to pay the kinds of salaries that pro hockey players earn, just minimum wage."
Berg, an 18-year-old college student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, became involved in the suit after a disappointing experience during his playing days in the OHL.
According to Berg, son of former NHLer Bill Berg, he played eight games with the Niagara IceDogs before being sent down to a junior B team, where he reaggravated a previous shoulder injury and was forced to stop playing.
Berg was shocked to find out that he'd be receiving only partial assistance with his college education. Berg said he was under the belief that he was contractually guaranteed to receive four years of tuition as part of the educational package he was promised.
Berg, who was born in New York City but hails from Beamsville, Ontario, feels he was taken advantage of and doesn't want other players to encounter a similar experience.
"I think a lot of that has to do with the culture," Berg told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation. "The culture is that players are lucky to get the opportunity, so everybody thinks they should just put their heads down and keep working. Players are always gonna do that -- I believe [hockey] players are among the most dedicated people in the world -- but those players should be protected from being exploited for their passion."
Berg is planning to transfer to Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, next year to study sports management. He knows his first semester at McMaster was paid for, but he's unsure if he will ever receive any additional reimbursement for his education.
Marty Williamson, head coach and general manager of the IceDogs, has a different understanding of how things went down between Berg and the lower-tier junior team he joined after what Williamson described as Berg's disappointment with playing time on the IceDogs.
"The only thing I know is he quit our hockey teams," Williamson told ESPN.com when reached by phone Thursday afternoon. "I don't know if it was because of injury or why he left, but it really was as simple as that."
Williamson said that Berg did not leave the IceDogs under bad terms -- he said the two shared a hug and a handshake in the parking lot after Berg made the decision to play elsewhere -- but Berg said the team was not sympathetic to his situation once he injured his shoulder playing for the lower-tier team. Berg said he told Niagara about the injury and the team subsequently cut off communication.
The commissioner of the CHL, David Branch, did not respond to several interview requests by ESPN.com, but a spokesman for the league did provide this statement on his behalf, made when the suit was originally filed:
"In terms of the class action that was filed today in Toronto, the CHL, our member leagues and teams will vigorously defend ourselves against this action which will not only have a negative effect on hockey in Canada but through all sports in which amateur student athletes are involved."
Though Charney would like to see the case consolidated and heard in Ontario, his legal team is prepared to go to Alberta and Quebec as well. This process could be a lengthy one, however. Class certifications can take more than a year to decide, and Charney hopes that issue is resolved within the year.
His lead client, Berg, just hopes to see players regain some of the rights he feels they have lost due to the league's institutional discrimination.
"I think this is a really good point to go forward from in changing a culture that is putting down the players," Berg said. "This lawsuit will help players gain more and more rights and we're hopeful that we can change it from a culture that is putting down the players to one that is raising players up."