Windsor Spitfires Appealing OHL Sanctions, What’s Next?

The Windsor Spitfires have filed notice to the Ontario Hockey League that they intend to appeal the sanctions levied by the league as punishment for allegedly violating the OHL’s player benefit and recruitment policies, according to the Windsor Star.

We have filed our notice of intention to appeal,” Spitfires president and head coach Bob Boughner said in an email Tuesday.

“However, as the process is not entirely clear, we have asked the commissioner to contact us to discuss the process so that we may formally launch our appeal.”

League commissioner David Branch confirmed the Spits have filed such notice and explained to Jim Parker of the Star, in brief, what is likely to happen next.

“The appeal would be heard by the full board of governors of the Ontario Hockey League and Windsor would, in fact as a member of the board, have a vote on the appeal,” Branch said.

So this process is far from complete, and as Sportsnet’s Patrick King noted last week, other teams might be feeling a little nervous right now.

Until the exact circumstances are known in regards to Windsor’s violations, every team is wondering if they could be facing similar sanctions. One source noted there were approximately a handful of other investigations ongoing and Friday’s ruling could simply be the tip of the iceberg.

Coming up after the jump, thoughts on Windsor’s appeal, the process and why all of this matters to the National Hockey League.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise Windsor is appealing. Such a significant punishment against one member team has never been handed down by the OHL. The record fine and revoking of five total draft picks, including three first-rounders convinced everyone that Windsor was guilty as charged.

The OHL’s refusal to go into detail publicly may have given a shred of leverage to Windsor in the court of public opinion in the short term and the Spits are certainly using it.

You have to commend Branch for his bold decision to levy sanctions, given the damage it does to the league’s reputation, but not revealing the whos and whats of the situation leaves little to be desired. I can understand the desire to protect the reputations of the players involved, especially if the players cooperated with the investigation.

I’m of the mind that not everything has to be public knowledge, but this is a potential precedent-setting punishment. You’d think there’d be some obligation on behalf of the league to explain why such a harsh punishment was necessary.

As Lake Superior State head coach Jim Roque aptly noted to the Sault Star, “I don’t know if the punishment fits the crime (here) because I don’t know what the crime exactly is.” That’s coming from a guy on the college hockey side of the debate.

The secrecy surrounding the circumstances of this punishment and what led to it also leaves so much open for interpretation and speculation.

I have talked to sources within OHL and NHL circles and everyone has a different story about what happened, and who is involved. That’s to be expected when the proceedings have been shrouded in secrecy.

Everyone’s a suspect now and that’s not fair to the kids that probably had nothing to do with any of this.

Perhaps it’s asking too much for a little transparency, but there are plenty of reasons for it.

Switching gears a bit, another interesting element of this situation is the appeal process. It is not yet known when and if the appeal will be heard. As laid out in the Windsor Star, every team’s governor gets a vote on the final decision, including the Spits. However it is unclear whether a simple majority would be sufficient for the governors to make a final decision.

If the appeal is brought to the board of governors, that group is put in an awfully uncomfortable position.

For one, based on conversations with OHL sources, Windsor has very few friends within the league, particularly among opposing general managers, who obviously have the ear of their owners. That could impact the appeal in a big way.

That said, the other side of it is how much the league governors see the need for things to change within the OHL, because that’s exactly what these sanctions will bring.

The alleged inappropriate benefits given out by the Spits are widely believed to be doled out with more regularity among more teams than anyone is willing to admit. Draft tampering has been rampant, particularly over the last decade as the Barrie Examiner points out. Do league governors want that to change?

Well, you’d have to believe the smaller-market teams absolutely would want to see this change as these practices have directly affected their competitiveness. However, the teams that have allegedly engaged in inappropriate practices, usually the ones making the most money, like making that money and may not want to change.

Should the league governors grant and uphold an appeal from Windsor, the commissioner’s decision and, by association, his power are undercut. Would that protect other teams that may be under investigation? Does that give them incentive to vote in favor of Windsor? It could, but there’s potentially a bigger incentive not to.

Another important element to consider in both the timing of this announcement and the circumstances that may surround it is the NHL’s involvement in all of this.

As the NHL is in the process of renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA, there are elements of that agreement that impact the CHL. Most specifically, the CHL-NHL agreement that if a player was drafted from a CHL team, that player, should he not make the NHL club roster, cannot be sent to the AHL by the team that drafted him until he is 20. That agreement, having expired along with the CBA could easily be altered in the negotiations, should the NHL choose to do so.

Additionally, the NHL sends a multi-million-dollar grant to the CHL annually, which gets shared by the member clubs, to help support player development. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey also receive similar grants for the same purposes.

Because it gives that kind of money and also grants the CHL some assistance in the form of the CBA’s rules on 18- and 19-year-old players, the NHL has a right to know what’s going on. It also allows the NHL to dictate what it is they want from the CHL’s member leagues in order to continue granting such assistance.

As Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, told Craig Custance last year, “We’re going to ask for more vigilance on the part of the CHL to make sure payments are not being made.”

Custance also got this from Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke:

“At some point, where there’s smoke there’s probably fire. I would like to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “If there are improper payments to a league we subsidize, I think we’re entitled to know what they are and bring them to a stop.”

The NHL currently has bigger fish to fry, but the league understands that what is going on in its developmental leagues can impact the NHL somewhere down the line.

It looks like the message was received by David Branch, who doubles as the president of the Canadian Hockey League.

While we still don’t know the specifics, we can fairly safely assume that Branch would not have acted so severely without something concrete.

Under the NHL’s watchful eye, this could be the beginning of a fundamental shift within not just the OHL, but QMJHL and WHL as well.

Pretty much everyone else agrees that Windsor is not the only team that has engaged in practices that run contrary to league rules. So how far down the rabbit hole is Branch willing to go? As Bob Duff wrote, how Branch proceeds could and probably will define his legacy. He may have no choice but to go deeper.

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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