[UPDATED] Kitchener Apparently Suing Michigan Daily Over Trouba Report

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 DailyFrom 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.

Earlier Tuesday afternoon, I spoke with Christian Arnold on Power Play Radio about this very topic. You can listen to the segment in full at this link.

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.)

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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23 Responses to [UPDATED] Kitchener Apparently Suing Michigan Daily Over Trouba Report

  1. Pingback: Canadian Junior Hockey Team Sues The Michigan Daily « College Media Matters

  2. . says:

    kitchener needs that 1 million to pay the next ten guys they convince to go to the O.

  3. Trevor says:

    Even if a CHL team offered a remuneration package, it’s ballsy for any NCAA team to get upset considering they offer their own remuneration packages conveniently masked by “scholarships”.

    • bluetell says:

      Except that “scholarships” do not equal “cash payments”. In case you aren’t aware, a “scholarship” means you get to go to school for less money. A “cash payment” means you receive money into your bank account on not-school

  4. bcisleman says:

    “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”
    James Madison, 1789

    Kitchener has not a leg to stand on. Freedom of Speech and of the Press means just that…and Madison’s era saw folks say much worse about each other–including George Washington–than the Daily wrote about Kitchener.

    I should add that Ontario courts have no jurisdiction in Michigan and Michigan judges are elected. Kitchener may be making a PR statement and it may be effective. This legal maneuver has no legs at all.

    • DD says:

      I’m sorry @bcisleman, but have you never heard if libel? There has to be some reasonable basis for what’s reported.

      • bcisleman says:

        I’m sorry, @DD, but have you ever heard of a successful libel suit being prosecuted in the US? Don’t think so and there’s a reason for that. The NY Post printed an allegation that Mike Piazza was gay some years ago. I don’t think they even ran a retraction. For better or for worse, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press mean just that.

      • DD says:

        I’m quite sure there have been, but I’m not going to fire up Lexis and look. Take a look at NY Times v. Sullivan and tell me that that decision allows for blatant falsehoods to be reported as truth. If there was some basis for the reporting, then the Michigan Daily is fine, but if it was made up out of thin air because the paper was annoyed that a player might consider passing on the NCAA for the OHL, then the paper could be liable for libel.

      • bcisleman says:

        Quite sure you won’t because there aren’t. That decision was very controversial but even it provides that the plaintiff has to prove “malicious intent” which is well nigh impossible. Doesn’t matter what it was made up out of. Unless Kitchener can prove “malicious intent”, they have no case.

    • Anonymous says:

      So, you’re saying that student reporters with unnamed,sketchy sources can spout off any rubbish they desire? Hmm, so if I state that Americans are attention seeking, rude, wannabe world police a$$holes, you’d have to take that as truth, so, I’d expect no rebuttal from you then,

      • bcisleman says:

        First, we don’t know how “sketchy” the sources are. Second, in a free country, a journalist absolutely can “spout off”. It’s up to John and Jane Q Public to decide if what they publish is “rubbish” or not. Third, no, I wouldn’t have to take your crude, boorish and false statement as truth and I could rebut it to my heart’s content if I thought it was worth my time. I just couldn’t hope to succeed in a libel action against you.

  5. smurfposse says:

    Point being, the kid writing the report was in the wrong. The money stated is simply a symptom of the process. Look even in the NFL Vilma is suing the Commish over groundless comments that are a detriment to the character, reputation and possible future earnings of the player…. I doubt that ever comes into play for Trouba who is a highly touted D in the NHL, however, the Kitchener team deserves the same respect as any other team, and if they are being dragged through the ringer due to some poor excuse of a college writer (provided he’s off base) they deserve to have this righted so as not to tarnish its reputation.

    CHL/QMJHL are not the same as NCAA College Football schools. A scandal is still a scandal. Scholarships are the ‘proper’ bribe that is available to players. I am certain there are plenty of athletic scholarship recipients who aren’t getting it for their GPA. But that’s fine as well. You work with what you have and get noticed…. unless you are the Miami Hurricanes then you get the ‘bonus and bumps package’ brought to you by the local entrepreneur. (Sorry, off base? I’m a huge fan of the U and was sickened to see they had AGAIN been in that mess after what happened in the 90’s)

    • bcisleman says:

      If the paper behaved irresponsibly, nobody approves of it. As a matter of law, however, Kitchener doesn’t really have a prayer of succeeding.

      In addition to the ample protection of the First Amendment and the fact that Michigan judges are elected–and thus susceptible to political pressure from Michigan universities–Michigan libel law contains the following exclusion:

      “does not extend to those who claim their professional reputation or business have been defamed.”

      Sounds like they are talking about the case Kitchener is bringing to me. This could be a PR statement or an attempt to intimidate The Daily into a retraction. Kitchener, however, has NO hope of a favorable decision.

      • Kyle says:

        While Michigan law is great, the article above mentions that the suit was filed in Ontario. Canada does have laws against just making up stories and printing them. To prove a libel case in Ontario, you have to convince a judge that the statement was made to a third party, the statements were specifically about the individual (or organization, corporation etc), and that the statement is defamatory (i.e., it must be false and disparages the reputation of the individual, organization, corporation. And while you believe that no libel cases have been successful in the United States due to the First Amendment (which isn’t true, as the First Amendment has limitations to it as described in various state laws), libel cases have been successful in Canada, including multiple cases brought against the CBC (A Crown corporation {owned by government}).
        If the courts have been able to convict the government of it, I am sure they won’t have any problem finding a school newspaper guilty

  6. bcisleman says:

    Libel cases are rarely ever successful in the US and I suspect that most successful cases were brought many years ago before the Civil Rights movement when the Bill of Rights was taken less seriously.

    You are right that the case was brought in Ontario…but the Ontario court would still have to impose its verdict. For that, it would need the cooperation of Michigan courts. Given Michigan law and the elected status of Michigan judges, that just will not happen.

    • More Cowbell says:

      Someone on another site commented about a similar lawsuit a few years back, when Brian Burke sued the New York Post because Larry Brooks wrote that Burke had instigated the Bertuzzi attack on Moore. Burke sued in a BC court, and the Post failed to get the suit bounced on jurisdiction. They argued that the Post is a New York paper so the lawsuit should proceed in New York. The judge decided that posting the story online resulted in Burke being libeled outside New York, including in BC. The lawsuit was allowed to proceed. Eventually, Brooks printed a retraction and the lawsuit went away.

      • bcisleman says:

        Its a possible outcome that the lawsuit is a pressure tactic and The Daily may decide to issue a retraction. Note that in the case you cite, it never got to the point of the BC court issuing a verdict–never mind imposing it in NY. My point is that there is zero chance for Kitchener ultimately to prevail in the courts. Whether The Daily and UM decide to cave due to publicity and legal costs is another matter.

  7. Pingback: Carlson/Coaching Search Update « Fear The Triangle – UMass Hockey Blog

  8. Jim Leitner says:

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court. For years, there have been many “have-not” major junior franchises who have accused the “haves” of improper payments to players. The idea of those “have nots” being called as witnesses could be very damaging to the CHL’s image.

  9. Kitchener does not pay players to come to their city, players come to the city because it is one the best in the entire CHL (every home game is sold out) and the CHL gets you ready for the NHL. Instead of playing 20-30 games, you play a 60+ game regular season plus playoffs. The OHL also offers an education package “Once a player graduates from the OHL, he will receive a minimum scholarship of tuition, textbooks and compulsory fees towards an undergraduate degree for each year played in the Ontario Hockey League.The OHL Scholarship can be applied to a program that is different than a traditional university or college four-year undergraduate degree / diploma program such as a Technical or Trade School, Firefighting or EMS.”

    The reason Kitchener is going after the paper is because the last time this happened, they lost Cam Fowler. The damage was done after the report surfaced, he said he was going to the NCAA, didn’t play a single game for his school but went back into the import draft and ended up in Windsor. So a false report ended up costing the Rangers a NHL first round draft pick.

  10. Harold says:

    so if anyone in Canada and prints out something from the internet that they disagree with, they can sue? The lawyers are laughing at you, cuz they’re gonna cash in big for years? They lost Cam Fowler? Maybe they never had Cam Fowler?

  11. Don says:

    Troumba only got $200K? Rumor around Boston U was that Charlie Coyle for twice that to go to St. John’s this year (and was heading for the rocks academically).

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