The Morning Skate Memo #1: the NHL Visa

This week marks two momentous events in my legal career. I started my own law firm in immigration law and was APPOINTED The Morning Skate’s in-house attorney. Not a big deal (yes it is). 

My first act as founding and only member of The Morning Skate Bar, is to share The Morning Skate Memo– which is ABSOLUTELY NOT legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship between reader and anyone. What it does do is create blogs about hockey, the law, and alcohol.

The Morning Skate Bar is serving whiskey today. I love my job.

Our first topic is how to get a visa to play pro hockey in the United States. Step 1: be really ridiculously good at hockey. Step 2: hire a sexy immigration attorney (I’m available) if your pro hockey team is not paying for one on your behalf.

Any paid player coming from abroad to play a sport in the US  must get a work permit in order to live and work here. Even Canadians, who are exempt from visitor visa requirements, have to get a work visa. Think of a visa as part of your plane ticket to the U.S. — you can’t get here (legally) without one.

Canadian players used to pack their lives in their hockey bags and hop the border by skating before the visa system was established. The term “hop the boards” is said to have come from this ancient practice.

According to USCIS, “You must be coming to the United States to be employed as an athlete by:

  • A team that is a member of an association of six or more professional sports teams whose total combined revenues exceed $10 million per year. The association must govern the conduct of its members and regulate the contests and exhibitions in which its member teams regularly engage; or
  • Any minor league team that is affiliated with such an association.”

NHL players and players signed down to AHL and ECHL teams qualify.  P-1’s can be issued for up to 5 years, which allows for player trades and free agency without disruption of work eligibility. Note that the league itself is only treated as a “P-1” league if its members’ revenues exceed $10 million per year. The USA don’t play.

Lower pro leagues, like the SPHL, will have to apply for other visas (assuming here the SPHL doesn’t make at least $10 million per year among its member teams).

Fed players need not apply.

P-1 visas are mostly talent-based because they are based on your the status of your professional league. However, international teams also get P-1’s for major events, so you might have sub-ECHL talent getting one if England or somewhere random qualifies for the Olympics.

Unless the U.S. is hosting a major tournament, the tournament wouldn’t warrant a P-1. (If any of you Caribbean or non-traditional hockey nations want to organize an international ice hockey program to build toward the Olympics, PLEASE call me and give me a dream job).

Players of “international acclaim” who command a free agent value can likely get P-1 by their own reputation. This would probably be available to the next Connor McDavid if he wanted to hold out after getting drafted #1 overall or something. The international acclaim status is not tied to your team and is pretty subjective.

36,957 P category visas were issued in 2019. In 2016, though there were over 98,998 P-1 visa admissions visa counts at border crossings. With international rosters and an international schedule, NHL and AHL players must account for thousands of “P-1 swipes” at the border each season.

Next time, we will explore the B-1, the tryout visa. Cheers.

– Puckraker, TMS Bar Association

Author: Puckraker

Puckraker grew up skating and retired after a Tier III NYS tournament appearance with the Great Neck Bruins. These days, Puckraker is a lawyer living the dream from New Orleans, where there are no hockey rinks.

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