Lausanne (AFP) – Imagine someone offered you $50-$100 a week to do a job in Everett, Washington, and then someone else offered you $400,000 to do the same job for a year in Zurich.
That was a choice facing the elite American ice hockey teenage phenom Auston Matthews last year. He chose Zurich, in an unprecedented decision that may have broader consequences for the sport.
On Friday, Matthews will take a step towards securing a multi-million contract that will make the salary he earned last season with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss professional hockey league look like meal money.
North America’s National Hockey League (NHL), the sport’s premier organisation, holds its annual entry-draft in Buffalo where its teams will select the game’s best young talent.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, a cash-rich franchise, choose first.
Experts agree they will almost certainly choose Matthews, a six-foot-two (189 cm) 18-year-old centre from Scottsdale, Arizona.
Based on recent precedent, Matthews will likely sign a three-year contract worth more than $10 million.
– Trailblazer? –
Before being drafted into the NHL, North American teenagers of Matthews’ calibre have in the past exclusively played in top amateur leagues on their continent, the traditional stepping-stone to NHL riches.
Those amateur leagues offer a stipend to meet basic expenses but players are in effect unpaid, even though the teams are for-profit ventures.
When Matthews decided to play in Switzerland instead of with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL), who controlled his amateur rights, hockey experts questioned whether he had hurt his NHL draft prospects by straying from the standard path.
Those doubts will likely be put to rest at Friday’s draft.
But Matthews’ case is also part of a raging debate over compensation for minor players.
Glenn Gumbley, a labour activist who has fought for fair pay for amateurs, noted that the WHL and its partner, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), have an interest in ensuring that teenage stars like Matthews stay in North America.
Asked how the WHL and OHL might respond to Matthews choice of playing in Switzerland, Gumbley said: they may try “to ensure that instances like this are prevented in the future.”
– ‘Just a little bonus’ –
After a game on a frigid January night in Lausanne, in which Matthews scored a key goal, he told AFP that salary played no part in his decision to come to Zurich.
“I was kind of deciding between Everett and here and fortunately it worked out to come over here,” he said.
Money, “had nothing to do with it, honestly, it’s just a little bonus to do what you love and get paid for it,” he added, asserting that he had no issues with the WHL or its pay structure.
But the weekly stipend that Everett would have paid Matthews was not just miniscule compared to his Zurich salary, it was almost deemed illegal.
Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries in 2013 opened an investigation into the WHL, looking at whether teams were breaking the law by not paying players minimum wage.
The teams said their players are trainees and not entitled to compensation.
In a preliminary finding, Washington investigators found that justification hollow and said teenage players were “employees” and entitled to fair pay.
Before those conclusions were finalised, Washington lawmakers passed a bill in May 2015 declaring that WHL players under 20 should not be considered employees, terminating the child rights probe.
The WHL, OHL and a partner league in Quebec are also facing a class action lawsuit from players demanding millions of dollars in back pay on grounds that they worked for free through their late teens.
Toronto lawyer Ted Charney, who is leading the class action suit, wrote the Washington labour board, asking: “why should the business of operating a hockey team in the WHL be exempt from paying minimum wages to kids?”
The vast majority of amateurs never make it to the NHL and, having left secondary school to play hockey, sometimes have little to fall back on.
Following in Matthews’ path will not be an option for every skilled amateur.
Swiss teams have limited spots for foreign players and most are taken up by proven professionals. Elite talents like Matthews are rare.
Also, some American teenagers could be daunted by the prospect of moving across the Atlantic, away from family.
As Matthews told AFP, having his mother Ema with him in Zurich was key to his survival.
“I don’t know what I would eat if she wasn’t here,” he said. “Cooking is not my go to.”