Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Evil Empire next up for Blazers

It has been 30 years since then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan is first believed to have referred to the then-Soviet Union as the “evil empire.”
Obviously, Reagan, who died in 2004, won’t be in Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland on Friday when the WHL’s Western Conference final begins, but a newly branded Evil Empire will be there.
The Kamloops Blazers and the Winterhawks (aka the Evil Empire) open a best-of-seven series with games there on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Evil Empire, as the team has been dubbed by fans, will be rolling into Kamloops for Games 3 and 4 on April 23 and 24. Hide the women and children. Lock the doors. Make sure the toys are put away. Put the street patrols on red alert.
You will recall that the WHL dropped the hammer – not just any hammer, but a 100-pound sledge – on the Winterhawks in late November. That was the conclusion of an investigation that involved sending an auditor into the Winterhawks’ offices and looking everywhere – in desk drawers, behind couch cushions and in hollow table legs – for evidence of wrongdoing.
This came after two or three years of rumours and innuendo involving illegal payments to players. Oh, yes, the whispers were everywhere; they still are, in fact. The Winterhawks were (are?) paying players, especially imports, under the table, dontcha know. How else do you think they were getting guys like Nino Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi out of Switzerland? What, you think they landed Seth Jones because there’s a great bookstore in Portland? How else do you think an organization went from 19 victories in its first season under new ownership to 44 the following season and to WHL championship finals in 2011 and 2012?
It couldn’t have been because the new owner, Calgary-based businessman Bill Gallacher, had a plan and hired good hockey people to implement that plan. No. There had to be more to it than that.
But there wasn’t. At least not according to the WHL news release that was attached to that hammer. That release stated that the Winterhawks were guilty of “player benefit violations.”
It seems the Winterhawks paid for some flights for parents, some offseason workouts for some players, and some cell phones for captains.
“Our independent investigation in this case,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison was quoted as saying in that news release, “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 Winterhawks lost Mike Johnston, their general manager and head coach, for the duration of this season. They were fined $200,000. They were barred from the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and lost their first-round selections through the 2017 draft.
Don’t think for a moment that the Winterhawks aren’t using this, especially the loss of Johnston, as fuel for their fire.
“It’d be a disappointment if we didn’t (make the Memorial Cup),” goaltender Mac Carruth told Jason Vondersmith of the Portland Tribune prior to the start of these playoffs. “We’d be letting down Mike. . . . It’s absolutely motivation. Some of us have forgotten about it, and we need to get back to that — the Portland Outlaws. We’re getting our minds right for the playoffs.”
Veteran forward Taylor Peters added: “Losing Mike, although devastating to our organization, hasn’t really slowed us down. But, moving forward, we have the chip on our shoulder, and we’re playing up how we battled adversity all year. The Evil Empire thing, we’ve definitely jumped on that, and use it as fuel.”
The hockey world, with the NHL in lockout mode at the time, had lots of time on its hands and, with the punishment seemingly far exceeding any crimes, was left to wonder what had really happened in Portland. In fact, hockey people continue to ask questions. There had to be more to it than that, they suggest. They wonder, ‘When will Gallacher respond?’ And they ask: ‘What did Johnston really do?’ ”
Meanwhile, the whispers and the innuendo haven’t gone away. There are people who are involved with the WHL who continue to claim – off the record, of course – that the Winterhawks had to be involved in making illegal payments to players. Never mind that no one seems to have any evidence of that.
It all has served to turn the Winterhawks into the most despised – nay, most hated – organization in the history of the WHL, which has been around since the summer of 1966. Who’s No. 2? No one. The Winterhawks are the only entrant. They rule. They own the category. Back in the day, the Flin Flon Bombers and the big, bad New Westminster Bruins were feared for what they might do to you on the ice. But the organizations weren’t hated.
The Winterhawks are. Period.
This also has served to define the hockey club’s mission. They badly want to make a third trip to the championship final. On Twitter, players have been known to use the hashtag #adversityhawks.
Robison has yet to address the situation in Portland or even speak with the Portland press corps. In Portland, then, the folks are hoping for another trip to the championship final, this one as the No. 1 seed, meaning the pre-series news conference, which the commissioner historically has attended, would be held there.
The fans and media there also would love nothing more than to have the Winterhawks win the championship on home ice. Watching their boys with the Ed Chynoweth Cup would be one thing; to have Robison have to present it to them would be icing on the cake.
It is into this maelstrom that the Blazers are skating, like a ship sailing into a hurricane.
It isn’t enough that the Blazers carry the weight of a city whose boys haven’t been to a WHL final since 1999 on their shoulders. It isn’t enough that they represent the smallest community of the four teams still standing – the Edmonton Oil Kings and Calgary Hitmen are to play for the Eastern Conference title.
The Blazers also are carrying around the hopes of most of the other WHL teams, certainly the ones that have adopted the ABP playoff plan.
ABP? Anyone But Portland.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca.)

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