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HomeMiscellanyA year after cost-saving cabinet order, hockey team donates to labour minister’s party

A year after cost-saving cabinet order, hockey team donates to labour minister’s party

Bob Mackin

The Prince George Cougars’ $5,950 donation to the BC Liberals was the biggest in the party’s unaudited report for Feb. 17-22. 

The Cougars donated almost exactly a year after Prince George-Valemount Liberal MLA (and notable Cougars’ fan) Shirley Bond signed a cabinet order excusing B.C.’s six Western Hockey League team owners from paying the scholarship-eligible players $10.85-an-hour.  

WHL team owners are battling a class action lawsuit aimed at forcing them to pay players the minimum wage, which would add $280,000 in costs to each team. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that the 16-to-20-year-old players are entitled to more than a $250-a-month stipend and room and board because the teams are multimillion-dollar, for-profit businesses that rely on the sale of tickets, souvenirs and advertising as well as proceeds from broadcast contracts.  

Greg Pocock leads the Cougars’ six-man ownership group, which includes Cougars’ alumni Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis, that paid $6.4 million for the franchise in 2014. He refused to comment on the lawsuit because it is before the courts. By email, Pocock told theBreaker: “I am proud to support any political or non-political group that works tirelessly for the betterment of our province.”

The Cougars are not Pocock’s primary business. He owns industrial cleaning contractor Prince George Hydro Mechanical and co-owns the Forest Power Sports recreational vehicle dealer.

A Feb. 1 review of KPMG’s WHL financial summary by forensic auditor Ronald Smith says that the Cougars had $2.4 million in revenue, but lost $785,000 last year.

“Notwithstanding that the team lost an average of approximately $711,000 per year during the fiscal years/periods ended June 30, 2012 and 2013 and March 31, 2014, the purchaser appears to have paid $6,381,133 for goodwill, based on its balance sheets,” Smith wrote about the Cougars. “The team had losses of approximately $1,057,000 and $785,000 in fiscal years ended June 30, 2015 and 2016 respectively and the goodwill is still on the balance sheet in the amount of $6,381,133.

“It does not appear that team believes that there has been an impairment in the value of goodwill.”

Internal B.C. government documents, released under freedom of information, show that Pocock and co-owner John Pateman, along with WHL commissioner Ron Robison, first met with Labour Minister Bond in 2014 to lobby for the minimum wage exemption. 

“We very much appreciate that you are in support of our position to preserve the amateur athlete status of WHL players who participate on our B.C. based WHL teams,” Robison wrote on Sept. 3, 2014. “We are also very appreciative of the fact that you are prepared to have your staff address this matter at the upcoming provincial Labour Minister meetings later this week in Halifax. It is also our understanding you will be reviewing your current employment and labour legislation to determine if it adequately addresses the status of  of amateur athletes in your province.” 

Robison continued his lobbying. In an April 27, 2015 letter to Bond’s assistant deputy minister Trevor Hughes, he mentioned that Washington had excluded the state’s four WHL teams from minimum wage laws. 

B.C. WHL jersey crests outside the Premier’s Vancouver Office. (Mackin)

“The current class action lawsuit against the WHL may not only threaten the viability of our B.C. based franchises, but also have serious implications on the amateur sport system as a whole in the province. It is therefore extremely important this matter be addressed as soon as possible by the cabinet,” wrote Robison.

Kelowna Rockets’ owner Bruce Hamilton emailed his local MLA, Norm Letnick, on Aug. 5, 2015, to seek a meeting. 

“This is an issue that could have a terrible impact in all WHL Team Cities in B.C. Ron Toigo from Vancouver has kept Shirley and the Premier up to date. I just want you informed before this item gets to you,” Hamilton wrote.

The Cougars’ recent donation pales in comparison to the support from Vancouver Giants’ owner Toigo and his companies. The Liberals reported receiving $194,625 from the White Spot restaurants owner between 2005 and 2016. 

Bond submitted a request for cabinet’s priorities and planning committee in late September 2015 to endorse the ministry recommendation to amend the Employment Standards Act to exclude WHL players from minimum wage laws. 

“Workers in a variety of industries, including oil and gas, agriculture, silviculture, trucking and taxis are currently excluded from select parts of the Act,” read Bond’s submission. “Certain professional occupations where individuals are licensed by statute or are self governing by statute — such as physicians and lawyers — are excluded from all of the Act, as are sitters, students and other participates in certain work study or workplace training programs and newspaper carriers who are still in school.”

The minimum wage exemption that the WHL lobbied for was rubber-stamped by cabinet on Feb. 15, 2016.