Wednesday, November 28, 2012

WHL Hammers Portland for Violations

The WHL has announced massive penalties against the Portland Winterhawks today for violations which will result in the loss of 9 draft picks, a $200 thousand dollar fine and the suspension of GM and Head Coach Mike Johnston for the remained of the 2012-13 season and playoffs. 

As first reported by Dean Millard of The Pipeline Show and Global Sports back on November 13th, the league has been investigating the Winterhawks for several weeks.

After the jump, our reaction.

The press release from the league just sent out this afternoon:
"CALGARY, AB. - The Western Hockey League announced today the disciplinary action which has been taken against the Portland Winterhawks franchise for a series of violations of the WHL Regulations.
As a result of a series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons, 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.
“All WHL Clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our League Regulations or they will face significant consequences,” stated WHL Commissioner Ron Robison.  “WHL Clubs are required to fully disclose all commitments they make to a player in the WHL Standard Player Agreement.  Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL Regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL.  It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL Regulations as previous media reports indicated.”
The Western Hockey League will not make any further public comments on this matter.
Clearly the quote from Commissioner Robison at the end of the statement is directed at Dean's initial report on the situation.  We have a ton of respect for Mr. Robison and have had the pleasure of speaking with him on the show, in person and just casually many times.

Although it's great that the league has pointed out what Portland didn't do wrong, we don't think it's acceptable to lay out the penalties without explaining the "multiple violations". 

Does the referee send someone to the penalty box without telling him what for? 

That's a simplistic analogy of course but if I'm a member of the Winterhawks who has absolutely nothing to do with today's news, I want everyone to know that I'm innocent. 

There is no indication from the league whether this has anything to do with the CHL Import Draft or not so now people will have to wonder if Nino Niederreiter, Sven Bartschi, Oliver Bjorkstrand were guys who received those "player benefits" Mr. Robison talked about.

Maybe's it's coercing players to leave the NCAA or to jump to the Hawks before their intended college career began.  So do we squint at Cam Reid or William Wrenn, two guys who left St. Cloud State and Denver respectively to go to Portland?

Photo: Ryan Johansen (Soobum Images)
Then there's Ryan Johansen who left the BCHL's Penticton Vees after the 2008-09 season to go to Portland. 

What about Brendan Leipsic who we're told was on the fence about which path to pro hockey he would take? Or heavily recruited Seth Jones. Or Californian Chase De Leo. Or...

The point is that all of the players mentioned above may or may not be involved at all. It's completely feasible that Johansen joined Portland to get greater exposure in his NHL draft year. It's also totally reasonable that Leipsic went to Portland, was enthralled by their coaching staff and the roster of players he would be surrounded by and decided to take the WHL route. 

The problem is that by not publicizing the infractions, EVERYONE is guilty by association. Without knowing who the culprits are, outside of the now suspended Mike Johnston obviously, everyone will speculate and that's not fair to the players and their families.

As for the penalties themselves, obviously they are massive against Portland. While the Windsor Spitfires were hammered with the loss of five draft picks and $250K, Portland loses five picks THIS YEAR, and their 1st rounders for the next FOUR seasons after that. 

Now, Portland hasn't used a 1st round pick in the last couple of drafts but not having one to trade away at the deadline should not be taken lightly. 

Photo: Mike Johnston and William Wrenn
As for the suspension, let me makes this clear - I personally think Mike Johnston is an excellent coach and GM and I take no satisfaction in seeing him out of the league for the rest of the year. It's unfortunate if he is in any way, as two sources have suggested to me, the fall guy for someone higher up the food chain or a person operating behind the scenes in Portland. I hope Johnston returns to the WHL next season because the league is better for having him in it. 

That said, clearly the league cannot tolerate "cheating", in whatever form it occurred in this case. 

It's an unfortunate black eye for the league but we applaud them for coming down hard. Hopefully it's enough of a deterrent to prevent other teams from trying to skirt the regulations in any way in the future. 

It's also a cloud over the Winterhawks organization which has climbed out of the pit and back into being one of the flagship franchises in the WHL. That in itself is a shame because it was a great success story that now has been tarnished. 

The team currently has the WHL Player of the Week (Brendan Leipsic). Portland also boasted the Goalie of the Week once in November as well as the CHL goalie of the Week in both November and October (Mac Carruth). 

Moments ago the Winterhawks released the following statement which also points to the violations they broke:
"What follows is a summary of the league’s findings, and a statement from Johnston:

The Winterhawks were found to have committed the following violations:

•       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

The WHL’s audit found no violations involving monetary payments made to players, their families or agents, or any violations related to the league’s educational packages.

“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,” said Johnston.

“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,” continued Johnston. “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.”
I find it hard to believe that the league came down as hard as they did because of some plane tickets and a cell phone. There HAS to be more to it than this. Unfortunately, the league is apparently unwilling to comment further.   


GZ Expat said...

Guess Robson left it to the Hawks to explain themselves.

Ian Ross said...

Is Portland hiring Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel as consultants on the appeal?

Anonymous said...

The better question in my mind is this: If these are the actual findings of the investigation then how does the league justify the penalties applied to the organization? I cannot see the punishment fitting the crime in this case. While I don't agree with the violations the Hawks have listed I also don't agree with the punishment given for them...league looks worse than the team for this in my book.

Jess Rubenstein said...

I know that I have a bias towards the Winterhawks living in their backyard but sorry if helping families who otherwise could not afford to come see their son play is a crime then something is wrong.

If giving their team captains a cell phone to use during the season when anyone who knows the slightest bit about junior hockey knows the captain is an extension of the team then again something is wrong.

To see this built up like some kind of RICO indictment that the US Government has done to the mob is also wrong.

If these are the things that the Winterhawks have done then if I had a son wanting to play in the WHL then I would send him to Portland in a heartbeat.

First we are led to believe that the Winterhawks have committed major violations only to see how petty they really are.

Better question is why doesn't the WHL have a fund to help families who can't afford to visit their kid during the season?

Not every family has the kind of money to spend on traveling to see their kids play. It is the least the league can do for the families of those who make this lead happen.