For the second time this season, a Canadian Hockey League team has been sanctioned by its regional league for violating player benefit rules. Today, the WHL announced that it had found the Portland Winterhawks to have committed violations of such rules over a four-year period.
From the WHL’s release:
WHL Commissioner Ron Robison has suspended the Portland Winterhawks from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and the forfeiture of their first round selections in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 WHL Bantam Drafts. Should the first round selection in 2014 not be available due to a conditional trade, Portland will surrender their second and third round picks in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft. The WHL also announced the Portland Winterhawks have been fined $200,000 and Winterhawks General Manager and Head Coach Mike Johnston has been suspended for the balance of the 2012-13 season, including the 2013 WHL Playoffs.
This makes the OHL’s punishment against the Windsor Spitfires earlier in the year look like a tap on the wrist. Even more so after the OHL later reduced the sanctions.
These sanctions come weeks after Dean Millard reported on Coming Down the Pipe! that something big was coming against Portland.
Taking away draft picks is a lot more destructive in the WHL, where player movement is less common. The monetary fine hurts, but won’t kill Portland’s ownership. Taking away the head coach in the middle of a season is the kicker.
Portland is currently one of the top teams in the WHL, with a 20-4-1 record and rolling right now with nine wins in their last 10 games. Losing the head coach before the halfway point of the season is going to be a big distraction and impacts the team immediately, which is something the OHL’s sanctions stopped short of with Windsor.
Portland has issued a statement of its own, including details of what they have been informed they’ve violated.
Per the Winterhawks, they have been sanctioned for:
• A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program
• Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland
• Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen
• The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons
Johnston also responded in the media release from Portland stating, “After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed.
“We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions. We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”
While Johnston may have a point about the severity of the punishment based on the alleged “crimes.” What they have described as the violations are benefits that weren’t available to all of its players, and therefore improper in the eyes of the WHL.
When things like this happen, everyone automatically assumes its a situation in which the team has made under-the-table payments to players to acquire their services. The punishment certainly makes it seem like the violations were far more drastic than what the Winterhawks are saying. So is there more than meets the eye?
Portland has had little trouble over the last several years in luring both top American-born players and European prospects, particularly from Switzerland over the last few years. They’ve been more prolific than most other teams within the league.
The big name on the roster is top American prospect Seth Jones, but Bob McKenzie reports that he is not among the players involved.
I am hearing unequivocally that WHL audit of Portland did not turn up any irregularities with acquisition/signing of Seth Jones.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) November 28, 2012
Jones was acquired by Portland in a trade with Everett. Jones informed Everett that he would not play there, sparking a trade to Portland, which was the only team Jones would consider signing with in the league. It was either Portland or the University of North Dakota.
Jones’s agent Pat Brisson, who also represents Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, told McKenzie it has nothing to do with Jones and was angry anyone insinuated otherwise.
That, however, is the nature of the landscape in junior hockey. People are going to make those assumptions, fairly or unfairly. The way things have been going in the contentious battle between the CHL and NCAA make many on this side of the border sensitive to the ways junior clubs are acquiring players that have an NCAA option.
So now here we are, with another serious punishment from a Canadian Hockey League entity, which for many on the NCAA side of the debate means validation to the claims they’ve made for years. As more players headed north, breaking college commitments, the cries of shadiness only intensified.
In August of 2011, after a slew of American top draft picks went North earlier in the summer, Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the AHL told Craig Custance, “We’re going to ask for more vigilance on the part of the CHL to make sure payments are not being made.”
The NHL offers the CHL and Hockey Canada a significant financial grant for use to help fund the development of the players within the leagues. They also give money to USA Hockey to disseminate to its developmental leagues and programs as well. Knowing that the current turmoil being caused by player recruiting on both sides of the border, the NHL has an interest in ensuring that their feeder leagues are not engaging in potentially harmful practices.
In light of Daly’s comments of more than a year ago, it appears the message has been received by the Canadian Hockey League.
I’ve been told by sources within CHL circles that more sanctions could be coming soon, as the WHL and OHL in particular are heeding the NHL’s wishes and cracking down.
It is unclear what process Portland will have to go through in order to plead its case further to the WHL, or if there is some sort of appeal the organization can attempt to lessen the sanctions.
Windsor successfully got its punishment reduced after the OHL apparently got its desired public effect of showing they’re not messing around, only to later back off amid lesser fanfare. Will the WHL follow suit? The current fury surrounding these sanctions, both positive and negative depending on what side you’re on, will eventually die down.
Either way, even if the punishment eventually gets reduced, the WHL and OHL have now both made significant statements that a blind eye will not be turned to these practices any longer. So how far will this go and is this a new era for the Canadian Hockey League?
The answer to those questions could significantly impact the college and junior hockey landscape both in the short and long term, hopefully for the better.