The Ontario Hockey League released a statement Thursday unveiling severe sanctions against the Windsor Spitfires for violating the league’s Player Benefit and Recruitment Rules and Policies.
The Spits will pay a fine of $400,000 and five draft picks, including its first-round picks in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and second-round picks in 2015 and 2017. The $400,000 hit is the largest levied in OHL history according to CBC.
From league commissioner David Branch:
“In 2009 the Board of Governors of the Ontario Hockey League developed the OHL ENFORCEMENT PROGRAM which is designed to address and attempt to eliminate violations of the RULES and impose appropriate penalties if violations occur. The enforcement process is an integral part of the process to ensure integrity and fair play among the MEMBER TEAMS. One of the fundamental principles of the enforcement process is to ensure that those MEMBER TEAMS that are abiding by the rules are not disadvantaged by their commitment to compliance”, stated OHL Commissioner David Branch.
“The League conducted two separate investigations led by our Director of Security and Enforcement, and in considering all the facts, I was persuaded that the Windsor Spitfires Hockey Club violated the League’s Player Benefit and Recruitment Rules and Policies. While the penalties may appear to be severe, the League and its Member Teams recognize for any such violations of our Recruitment / Benefit Rules and Policies, we must send a strong message to preserve the integrity of our League”, concluded Branch.
Coming up after the jump, some thoughts on these sanctions and what it means for the NCAA-CHL battle and the Kitchener Rangers lawsuit against The Michigan Daily.
Credit to David Branch, who I have been critical of in recent weeks. By dropping the hammer on Windsor, the league president has made a significant statement about what happens if you break the rules. It’s also a warning shot to anyone else thinking about getting “creative” with its player procurement.
We don’t know what brought the sanctions about, or who it involved, but that they have to do with player benefits and recruitment, it’s not a long walk to the inappropriate payment of players.
I’ve long thought that Branch merely kept his head in the sand and was content to let some of the shady proceedings, that seemingly everyone else knew was going on, happen. Well, this is putting the foot down.
Branch has often said if he was shown proof, he would act. Well, apparently he and his director of security and enforcement found something and whatever they found, it was significant enough to bring some harsh punishments that could impact the Spitfires for years to come.
It is a courageous decisions from a commissioner who knows what news like this will do to his league. The rumors of player payment have been getting louder over the last few years and with a team actually getting caught by the league, speculation will run wild about more teams.
UPDATE: Windsor is denying the allegations per Sunaya Sapurji:
Windsor Spitfires denying allegations: “We will pursue all avenues of appeal regarding the decision made by the Commissioner, David Branch”
— Sunaya Sapurji (@sunayas) August 10, 2012
UPDATE 2: Jim Parker of the Windsor Star shares more from the Spits’s side:
“We are in receipt of the decision by the Ontario Hockey League regarding the Windsor Spitfires hockey club and completely deny all accusations that have been put forward. It is the team’s position that there is no evidence to support this decision, nor did the league follow due process or its own rules regarding procedural fairness in the making of this decision.
“We will pursue all avenues of appeal regarding the decision made by the commissioner, David Branch. We are proud members of the Ontario Hockey League and will be vigorously defending the well-deserved and established reputation of our hockey club as an exemplary organization both on and off the ice, through the appropriate appeal process.
Also from Parker:
“If we feel merit, we can order an investigation,” Branch said. “Since the program was instituted (in 2009), we’ve had several investigations.”
But Friday marked the first time a team was publicly penalized. Branch said the maximum for any such offence, as set up by the program, is $250,000 and three draft picks. The penalties to the Spitfires reflect the two violations.
These sanctions also come on the heels of the Kitchener Rangers’ libel suit against The Michigan Daily. The Daily reported Kitchener offered payment for Jacob Trouba, which Kitchener firmly denied and then took legal action. Even though Kitchener is not in trouble with the league, you’d have to believe this news somewhat affects the Rangers’ case. More on that in a bit.
The rumors have swirled around the Spitfires for years now, only intensifying after the Spits were able to haul in back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010.
Team GM Warren Rychel has had a lot of success luring college recruits from their commitments, which has made him Public Enemy No. 1 in a lot of college hockey circles.
Over the last four seasons, Rychel has lured top Americans with a regularity that has long raised eyebrows. In recent years, the Spits have acquired Cam Fowler, Kenny Ryan, Jack Campbell, Austin Watson, Craig Duininck Nick Ebert, Brady Vail, Ben Johnson, Nick Czinder, Andrew Yogan, John Cullen, Josh Unice and most recently Patrick Sieloff just to rattle off some names.
That’s not to implicate any of these players in the accepting of improper benefits, it’s just a list to show how prolific Rychel has been.
The big names like Sieloff (Miami), Fowler (Notre Dame), Ryan (Boston College) and Campbell (Michigan) all had big-time college commitments and were considered big losses for the programs they were set to join.
So now that Rychel and the Spits have been severely punished, speculation is going to run wild. The details of the whos the whats and the how much are not yet available, but according to Josh Brown of The Record, David Branch said this was a year-long investigation and involved “more than one” player.
I’ll be following the developments and doing some digging of my own to find out more.
So what does this mean for the NCAA-CHL battle?
Well, for one, this is probably whipping college hockey fans into a schadenfreude-induced frenzy, and potentially some high-fiving among college coaches.
Many of college hockey’s leaders have been frustrated by the alleged payment of players, particularly players with college commitments. Feeling like pawns being used as leverage, college coaches have been vocal about their disdain for the practices of player procurement among Canadian Hockey League teams.
This is a bit of validation for them. They weren’t crazy. Every time someone said “show me the proof” they couldn’t, but the OHL just did for them.
The large fine, the revoking of draft picks and the public embarrassment this causes the Windsor Spitfires could be a big blow to any other team utilizing similar practices, assuming there are some (and allegations have been flung at several other clubs in the OHL).
The NCAA coaches have often felt they were on an uneven playing field with the CHL teams in player recruitment due to the alleged remuneration of players. Does this level it?
It could. The decisions players make regarding their development should be their’s alone and should be based on the merits simply of how it will get him to reach his goals. By taking away the potential monetary incentive that has allegedly swayed some players in the past, now the decision has to be made simply on the merits of personal and hockey development.
There’s a whole other can of worms this could and probably should open. Should CHL players get paid by the teams that profit off of them?
It’s the same debate being waged in the NCAA. The CHL touts its education package, but only a small portion of the league’s players actually access it, whereas 100% of the players offered scholarships in the NCAA are using their package.
While a full scholarship may not be just compensation for football and basketball players helping athletic departments rake in money, it’s certainly more than the average CHL player is getting from his club. If it’s one of the big teams in the CHL, they’re making big bucks off teenagers’ backs essentially.
Today’s decision is significant also for the Kitchener lawsuit as there is now proof that the remuneration of players does exist, has existed and it is reasonable to believe Windsor is not the only one doing it. That’s not to say Kitchener has offered or payed players, but this is at least an item of evidence The Michigan Daily’s attorney can point towards in building his defense. Herschel Fink, the man representing the Daily, has already mentioned that he would be willing to bring up other instances of compensation of players within the league in court. Now he’s got a concrete example.
There is plenty more to shake out from this as the impact will be significant. No one will be hit harder than the Windsor Spitfires. These penalties are severe from a monetary standpoint, but more than anything from a future-of-the-organization standpoint. Losing key draft picks, in slots where impact players could be added for essentially the next five years, could set this organization back.
Windsor has bid for the 2014 Memorial Cup, and while Branch said these sanctions won’t affect their bid, it will affect their competitiveness.
Not only that, but the damage of reputation this has done to the organization is severe. They cheated and because they cheated they had an advantage not only over their recruitment competitors in the NCAA, but over their fellow OHL teams.
The competitive balance in the OHL has been almost non-existent. Teams that want to compete have to find ways to get the best players from both the U.S. and abroad. Of late, even the best Canadian players have been hard to come by, saying they’ll go to the NCAA only to later change their mind when they get picked in the draft by one of the big clubs.
This decision could help restore some competitive balance, giving the small market teams a chance on a level playing field.
With more to be sorted out in the coming weeks and months in the wake of this decision, it may take a while before the full impact is felt by the rest of the league. Either way, David Branch made a significant statement today and it was one I didn’t think we’d see him make.
There’s so much more to come from this, so I’ll be following closely. Stay tuned to USofH for the latest in these developments.