Last week, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, The Michigan Daily ran a report that Winnipeg Jets first-round pick and Wolverine-commit Jacob Trouba was offered $200,000 to sign with the Kitchener Rangers. Trouba’s family came out to vehemently deny the report, while Kitchener threatened legal action.
According to a report filed by Josh Brown of the Waterloo Region Record, Kitchener is following through on those threats. From Brown’s report:
The Kitchener Rangers are taking action against a Michigan student newspaper and one of its reporters after a story surfaced alleging the team had offered to pay to bring a player to the club.
“It’s not a threat anymore,” said Rangers chief operating officer Steve Bienkowski. “We served the newspaper and the writer there to either back it up or retract it.”
“Our intent is that we will file a statement of claim for damages,” said Bienkowski, who retained Blakes law firm hours after the story was published. “We have to look at every option we have. Where it ends up, who knows?”
Who knows, indeed. Libel and defamation lawsuits are tough to win no matter in the U.S. or Canada. Either way, Kitchener has taken a step it never took against Jeff Jackson when the Notre Dame head coach alleged Kitchener offered current Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler $500,000, despite threats of suing.
Some key points are not yet known about the suit, particularly and most importantly, what exactly Kitchener is claiming.
So without those key points of information, there’s still a ton to be sorted through, but the thing about libel suits (if this is going to be one) is that it may not entirely be worth it for Kitchener to see this through to the end.
Kitchener is currently dealing with an optics issue now. By serving papers, they’ve made an official move to express not only to the Michigan Daily, but to the public, that the report is not true with any and all legal backing they have. However, there’s the more negative optics of suing a student paper and student reporter, especially after not following through on threats against Jackson four years ago.
I am of the belief that if a reputable student paper is bold enough to print what it did, it should be held to the same journalistic standards as anybody else and therefore can be sued, but I can see why others would view it negatively.
That said, I don’t see this getting incredibly far now that Kitchener may have received its desired optical effect. Whether this thing goes the distance or not, just as the initial report planted the seed of doubt that Kitchener was above board, Kitchener has planted the seed of doubt in the Daily’s report by taking legal action. It’s their word against an anonymous source at this point.
If the power play by the Rangers forces the Daily to take down the story, which was edited to reflect the Trouba family’s statement, but did not remove what the source told reporter Matt Slovin, and print a retraction, it’s dead, most likely.
What will make it really interesting is if the Daily refuses to do so. That’s when this whole thing will get messy. Should the Daily choose to stand by its reporter and the story, it would be interesting to see if Kitchener continued with its pursuit. They’ve obviously taken these initial steps, but they’re baby steps in comparison to what would lie ahead. It’s just a matter of how badly Kitchener feels its reputation was damaged by the report.
I’m not going to sit here and accuse Kitchener of paying players. I don’t have any definitive proof or anonymous sources. That said, this report has re-opened the conversation of the inappropriate compensation of players, whether it is true in this case or not.
Some players change their minds naturally, without much urging, but there are others that, seemingly out of nowhere, have an epiphany that the OHL is the place for them. It’s not outlandish to think there’s an added incentive to have such an epiphany, especially with rumors and allegations swirling for years.
The thing about rumors and allegations is that they have yet to be definitively proven. No one can get anyone on record without anonymity, which is no surprise. Who has incentive to go on record with each party having special interests to protect?
In this great debate of NCAA vs. CHL, there are two things I know. No one has successfully proven a player was offered remuneration and no one has successfully proven a player hasn’t, at least not publicly.
Though this debate may never reach its apex in the court of law, it’s already there in the court of public opinion and depending on what side of the border you’re on, it’s a hung jury.
UPDATE 7/10, 3:40 p.m. ET: According to a new report from Brown, Kitchener is seeking $1 million in damages from The Michigan Daily. From Brown:
The defamation suit against The Michigan Daily seeks $500,000 in general damages and $500,000 in punitive damages and was expected to be filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Kitchener Tuesday, according to a team lawyer.
The Rangers formally requested that The Daily retract the story or issue an apology and set a Monday deadline before moving ahead with a lawsuit. As of Tuesday, the story was still on the paper’s website.
An important point from this most recent point is that the suit is being filed within the Ontario court system. I’m not a legal expert, so I am unsure of how this will affect either side’s case or how something like this works between a Canadian business and an American media outlet, but I do know that the internet’s borderless reach complicates matters (I’ll continue looking into this).
The second important point is the amount in damages Kitchener is seeking. Again, this is an issue of optics and while they are within their rights to sue if they feel strongly enough about their, going after a million bucks from a student newspaper isn’t exactly great for PR. Again, they have the right, but it doesn’t look great from the outside.
Also important to note that the paper did not and has not removed the story outside of updating it with the statement from Trouba’s family despite receiving a deadline from Kitchener. So it would appear the Daily is standing by its story, its reporter and its anonymous source. Now that the million-dollar bomb has dropped, will they continue to do so?
It appears like it’s game on for what is sure to be an important legal battle for both the NCAA vs. CHL recruiting battle and journalism ethics overall. Hold on to your hats.
UPDATED 7/10, 11:00 p.m. ET – The terrific Sunaya Sapurji filed a story for Y! Sports Canada on the latest. According to Sapurji’s report, the libel suit was filed in Kitchener Tuesday and the claim is expected to be served Wednesday.
Sapurji also got CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch on record:
“It’s disturbing,” said Branch in a phone interview. “We hope that we can take the necessary steps moving forward that will preclude such proclamations that have no substance, no basis.”
In 2010, the OHL hired retired OPP officer Ken Miller as the league’s enforcement officer to investigate claims made against teams breaking the rules. According to Branch, he has not been involved in this case to date.
“This just came to our attention last week,” said Branch. “We have not taken any steps, at this point, to engage our enforcement program into the process.”
Branch has admitted in the past on the record that there may be cases where improper benefits were offered to players within his league. It would be unfair to expect them to investigate every rumor, but the last time I saw Ken Miller’s name in a news story was when he was named to his post.
As allegations keep popping up annually, there has never been any instance to my knowledge Miller has investigated anything regarding improper benefits or draft tampering, which even some coaches within the OHL think is an ongoing problem.
I’m not suggesting there needs to be annual witch hunts, but perhaps some transparency in how the league is monitoring its member clubs’ conduct is in order. That would help quell rumors and allegations, one would think.
It is also interesting that Branch has not been involved in this case due to the fact that a member club is suing an American media outlet seeking a sum of $1 million. Isn’t that something the league commissioner should be a little dialed in on?
(Struck previous paragraph due to misinterpreting Branch’s quote. He has been in contact with the Kitchener Rangers, but Miller has not been involved in the case yet, which makes sense given the current circumstances. I apologize for the error.)