By now, you’ve probably heard about the WHL’s unprecedented sanctions against the Portland Winterhawks (if not, you can catch up here). The immediate reaction was widespread with differing opinions on if the punishment fit the crime.
That uncertainty was created after the WHL made its initial announcement of the sanctions without any real explanation of the infractions and saying it would not make any further public comments on the matter. Portland in a following statement went ahead and detailed what they were being punished for in what turned out to be a fairly savvy move in currying favor of the public.
As Guy Flaming of Coming Down the Pipe astutely surmised, the WHL had made a mistake by not detailing the infractions itself. By not doing so, instead of protecting the players from public blame the league cast guilt over a wider range of players, leaving any to appear involved. The WHL also ended up leaving itself vulnerable for seeming heavy-handed, which is exactly what happened in the wake of Portland’s first public statement.
As of Thursday, the spat between the two sides has devolved into a tactless public relations battle.
In light of the criticism from the WHL, the league “clarified” in yet another public statement that Portland had committed no less than 54 infractions involving 14 players over a span of five years.
The WHL also revealed that it “became aware of an undisclosed player agreement which went against the league’s rules that sparked the investigation. The WHL also commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the investigation independently.
“We believe the sanctions are not excessive given the repeated and systemic nature of the violations,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison explained in the statement. “The independent investigation discovered an unprecedented number of violations. It is the responsibility of each WHL Club and General Manager to be fully aware of the WHL Regulations and to be in compliance at all times. These sanctions are necessary in order to protect the overall welfare and integrity of our League and to preserve a level playing field for all of our member Clubs and our players.”
The Winterhawks later came out with a clarifying statement of its own, essentially saying its previous statement was accurate, even though it didn’t reveal the sum of the infractions.
“The WHL is counting each flight, training session and phone as an individual infraction, adding up to 54,” read the statement. “The league’s findings are consistent with the team’s statement yesterday, and the Winterhawks are encouraging more transparency in this process.”
The last 24 hours has been embarrassing enough for the league, but the dueling press releases only compounds it.
According to Flaming in a tweet, the Winterhawks may have also been fined $25,000 by the WHL for its statement in response to the initial announcement of sanctions. The 25K will be worth it if it forced the league’s hand to be more transparent.
The Winterhawks also must feel they have an advantage if this plays out more in the public eye. The team is expected to appeal this decision to the league’s board of governors in the near future.
The calls for transparency are probably a good thing, as it leaves less to speculation. We’ll never know the full details of the WHL’s findings and Portland may actually prefer that anyway.
The league has reason to keep things quiet as well. For years, despite widespread rumors and speculation that teams were acquiring players using similar tactics to lure players with other options, the WHL and the other Canadian Hockey League entities appeared content to willfully turn a blind eye. After all, these infractions in Portland were allegedly committed over a five year span.
Kelowna Rockets voice, Regan Bartel tweeted Wednesday after the sanctions were announced that “Many teams around the WHL will be snickering, ‘I told you so.’” Apparently even within the league’s own circles, it was fairly well known that something fishy was going on.
It may have taken a while, but something is being done. As I wrote yesterday, it could be due to a not-so-subtle nudge from the NHL to be more vigilant about wrongdoing among member teams in player procurement.
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Giants owner Ron Toigo said “I think it’s a sad day for both the league and Portland Winterhawks when it gets to this point. There are rules we all live by and operate by and when you don’t, there are consequences for it. Everybody abides by them for the most part and when it doesn’t happen, consequences are levied by the league. This probably, definitely, tops them all.”
The bigger question for Toigo and the rest of the owners of big-(for junior hockey) market teams is how did it get to this point and who let it get there?
This is, after all, junior hockey. It is a springboard for players to professional hockey, but in Canada and the few American teams like Portland across the Canadian hockey leagues it has become a fairly big business.
The major issue, and this goes for Junior A leagues and college hockey as well, is that there is increasing inequity among the players.
From the age of 16, a value is placed on what each of these players can offer. That value is based mostly on skill and what is believed that player can produce in terms of points, wins and fan interest, but it can increase or decrease based on the leverage that player has.
It is with that leverage players are able to attain certain benefits that may be over and above what is allowable within the rules structure of a given league. Whether its flights for parents, cell phones for captains, a no-trade agreement, or a sum of money.
That leverage may vary from player to player, but those with the most leverage are typically Europeans who would be able to stay closer to home for less exposure for the NHL Draft, but more money from the local pro club, and top Americans who can just as easily choose the college hockey route.
Again, we’re talking about players aged 16-20 and leverage. If that sounds uncomfortable, it’s because it is, but who can fault an individual for using any and all available options to receive the best situation possible.
This leverage has empowered richer teams, weakened lower-revenue clubs and has driven a stake through fairness.
Sadly, it is the Canadian players who grow up with aspirations of one day playing major junior that end up with little or no leverage, unless they threaten the college hockey route (as has happened many times). Those that play by the rules most often get the bare minimum when it comes to benefits.
Now there’s inequity in the NCAA too. Not every kid gets the same scholarship and there are ways to use similar leverage to get the highest scholarship possible. That said, most often, the scholarships will be based on on-ice performance. So let’s not pretend college hockey is perfect.
CHL proponents, however, have long decried NCAA rules as too strict and even many in the U.S. feel its amateurism rules are unfair to the players, but if this WHL incident is any indication, that league’s rules, while less broad in their coverage are apparently no less strict when enforced. It’s just taken a long time for anyone to get caught.
With more punishments expected in other CHL leagues over time, perhaps there will be more gains in making junior hockey not only more fair for the smaller-teams, but for all of the players.
That’s what will make the final decision coming down against Portland all the more interesting to follow. Will the WHL’s board of governors uphold the league’s decision in full, despite the seemingly excessive punishment? It’s a question with an unclear answer considering that some of those very governors may be engaged in similar practices with their own clubs.
These leagues have to make a decision. The status quo has allowed rich teams to get richer, the best players to get more than the guys in the lockers next to them and has created a widening rift in the NHL’s developmental landscape.
It really doesn’t matter what side of the debate you’re on or if you don’t care at all, there are significant problems throughout junior hockey, on both sides of the border. The solutions to these problems can only come from within.
Owners have a responsibility to their business to make money, but the manner in which that money is made creates a responsibility to operate with integrity and fairness, particularly when it comes to those that create value for that business.