Friday, November 30, 2012

Dueling news releases in the Dub

The WHL has quite a mess on its hands. In fact, it looks as though the WHL bit a grizzly on the butt without realizing that the big bear would snap back.
So, for the second day in a row, we got dueling news releases on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Winterhawks were whacked with unheard of penalties – a $200,000 fine, the suspension of general manager/head coach Mike Johnston for the rest of this season, barred from the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and the loss of first-round picks through 2017 – for rules infractions that the WHL said did not involve “payments or enhanced education benefits.”
Shortly after that release landed, the Winterhawks issued their own release. It stated that they were guilty of flying family members to and from Portland, paying for two players to train for a week in the offseason and providing a cell phone to the team captain.
(Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show tweeted last night that he was told by a source that the Winterhawks were “fined $25K for their press release” on Wednesday.)
The fan and media outcry was immediate, with most observers wondering what wasn’t being told.
On Thursday, Doug McLean of Sportsnet’s Hockey Central at Noon asked:
“Could the Western Hockey League have sent as strong a message by fining them $25,000, a 10-game suspension . . . could the same message be sent without crippling a franchise? That’s my biggest problem with what happened yesterday. For what they did, that’s the death penalty. That’s like Ohio State getting the death penalty because their kids got tattoos.”
No one was disputing the fact that the Winterhawks had broken some rules, but, according to the WHL, they weren’t recruiting-related violations, so why the sledge hammer?
Early Thursday evening, the WHL – which had ended its Wednesday release by stating that it would have nothing more to say on this issue – attempted to clear the air with a release that included this: “The independent investigation identified 54 violations involving 14 players which have occurred over the past five seasons.”
The WHL didn’t spell out the infractions or breaking down that big number (54), but those are violations that were uncovered when the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers audited the Winterhawks’ operation.
Just minutes after the WHL’s release landed, the Winterhawks issued their own release and they did what the league didn’t do – they broke down that big number:
“• One player was provided flights for his family and a summer training program
“• Seven families were provided 2-4 flights per season over the course of five years
“• Two players were provided a one-week summer training session
“• Four captains over three years were provided cell phones.”
(We await news from the aforementioned Guy Flaming as to how much this news release will cost the Winterhawks, but I’m betting it’s 50 grand.)
The Portland news release continued: “The Western Hockey League released a statement indicating there were 54 violations over five years involving 14 players. The Winterhawks do not dispute these allegations, which are consistent with the statement the team made (Wednesday).
“The WHL is counting each flight, training session and phone as an individual infraction, adding up to 54. The league’s findings are consistent with the team’s statement yesterday . . .”
And then the Winterhawks appeared to fire a shot across the bow of the WHL by closing their news release with this: “. . . and the Winterhawks are encouraging more transparency in this process.”
This almost reads as though the Winterhawks are daring the WHL to audit the operation of every team in the league.
As Steve Ewen of the Vancouver Province put it on his blog last night: “You really wonder where this is going. The Winterhawks can’t be the only team in WHL history that’s played fast and loose. How much dirty laundry is going to get unveiled?”
Anyway . . . the genie is out of the bottled and this has turned ugly, and the punishment still doesn’t appear to fit the crime.
As I understand it, a player Portland traded away arrived in his new team’s office and presented a contract that hadn’t been registered with the WHL office so was not on file in Calgary. That contract apparently included something that isn’t in the standard contract.
That apparently sparked this investigation.
One person familiar with the situation told me last night that Johnston had the opportunity to “come clean” in June and again in October. The WHL holds its annual general meeting in June; there was a gathering of governors and general managers in October. The source indicated that Johnston didn’t “come clean” and that figured in the disciplinary measures.
The WHL’s Thursday night release stated:
“The violations all relate to providing players with benefits not permitted under WHL Regulations. The violations include additional parent travel, off-season training and other benefits. These additional benefits, which were not disclosed to the WHL, are strictly prohibited under WHL Regulations.
“All WHL Clubs and General Managers are required to fully disclose to the WHL all benefits provided to players and to ensure their Club is fully aware of and in compliance with WHL Regulations at all times.”
That last paragraph suggests that WHL general managers are expected to police themselves on these things. I would suggest that, if that is the case, perhaps it is time for the WHL to hire some people as befits a multi-million dollar business and handle its own auditing and enforcement procedures.
Someone else who is familiar with the goings-on told me Thursday morning – before the duelling news releases – that “85 per cent of the infractions were flights for parents.” If you break down the violations that number would appear to be fairly accurate.
Asked if payoffs were involved in any of this, he replied: “Paid off? Nothing could be further from the truth.”
This person also told me that “these guys saved the franchise. But they did too good a job and created animosity. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
“The only way to beat them is to cripple them.”
The WHL’s Thursday night news release also included this quote attributed to commissioner Ron Robison: “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.”
There is no level playing field to preserve. Unfortunately, those days are gone forever. With no expense caps in place, how are the community-owned, small-market teams in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Swift Current and Lethbridge expected to compete with the big-market teams that have more revenue streams? How are the privately owned Brandon Wheat Kings expected to compete?
If the WHL wants to try and maintain anything close to a level playing field, perhaps it’s time to implement a revenue-sharing plan of some sort. That would mean putting a cap on expenses and running everything, including player and coach contracts, through a league auditor.
Some teams, but not all, hold parent weekends. I am told that WHL rules allow a team to put on a banquet and to pay for lodging. But teams aren’t allowed to pay for travel. I wonder who polices the expenses incurred for those weekends?
While the WHL has a gag order in place covering all of its people, Vancouver Giants owner Ron Toigo did speak in generalities about the situation with Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun. That story is right here.
Daniel Nugent-Bowman, who covers the Saskatoon Blades for the Saskatoon Starphoenix, weighs in with his opinion of the Portland situation right here.
It’s also interesting that Paul Buker of The Oregonian reported that “as of Thursday morning, Portland still did not know the specifics of Johnston’s suspension, what he can and can’t do the rest of the season.”
The story that included that info is right here.
And now some Twitter time:
From Yahoo! Sports’ Steve McAllister (@yahoomac): “Further on the WHL's handling of the Winterhawks sanctions, PR in the league's eyes, stands for ‘private relations‘.
From Dylan Bumbarger (@dylandb), who blogs about the Winterhawks: “if Portland exaggerate/lied on their statement, the WHL can cut them off at the knees in 30 secs by saying what's that simple”
From Portland freelancer Scott Sepich (@SSepich): “Where we stand: Bunch of people convinced Winterhawks did more than publicized, Hawk fans think it's a witch hunt and everyone is jealous.”
From Small Thoughts At Large blogger Alan Caldwell (@smallatlarge): “I love the WHL but they are completely inept when it comes to PR. They think the best way to control a story is to gag everyone.”
From former Prince George Citizen sports editor Jim Swanson (@jswan11WBCnats): “Who knew the WHL wanted to be like the NCAA?”
More from Swanson: “The comment about the WHL being like the NCAA is not fair, so an apology. The NCAA would explain its ruling,and answer questions #draconian”
Sports director Earl Seitz of CFJC-TV in Kamloops (@EarlCFJCsports): “Agree with @pdxwinterhawks on this one. Needs to be more transparency in this league. #too many secrets”
TSN hockey analyst Ray Ferraro (@rayferrarotsn): “#whl feels secure about penalties handed out to Portland – 1 day after saying there would be no further comment, they give 1 #try2justify”
Edmonton Sun sports writer Rob Tychkowski (@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI): “WHL statement seems to confirm that yes, Portland death sentence was indeed for jaywalking. Obscene ruling. Way over the top.”
Jason Stephens (@SylvanLakeSrAAA): “Does the @The WHL plan on auditing every team now??? I’m gonna guess you might find something outside the norm everywhere. #confused by it”
Portland Oregonian sports writer Paul Buker (@Pnbuker): “Players disappointed, angry but told not to talk. ‘We talked about it in the room but that stuff’s gonna stay in the room,’ said (D Troy) Rutkowski”
Former Winterhawks F Brad Ross (@bross1818): “I’m still in shock about the sanction handed down to my old club #winterhawks, and Mike Johnston. RT to show some support #memcuprunagain”
From United States of Hockey editor Chris Peters (@chrismpeters): “It has probably already been an embarrassing few days for the WHL, but this tactless PR battle in the fallout is only making it worse.”
Peters has his take on the situation right here and it's definitely worth a read.

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