Thursday, November 29, 2012

The whacking of the Winterhawks

Not since Tony Soprano was whacking people on HBO has a whack job created as big a stir as the WHL’s hit on the Portland Winterhawks.
If you missed it, the Winterhawks got whacked, and whacked good, when the WHL finally confirmed the rumours and speculation that had surrounded the franchise for the last few weeks.
According to a WHL news release, the Winterhawks were disciplined for a “series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons.”
A recap:
1. The Winterhawks have been barred from the first five rounds of the WHL’s 2013 bantam draft.
2. The Winterhawks have lost their first-round selections in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 bantam drafts. (If the 2014 first-round selection isn’t available due to a conditional trade, Portland will forfeit its second- and third-round selections in 2014.)
(For a good look at Portland’s draft situation, check out Small Things At Large over there on the right. Alan Caldwell has a solid, in-depth look at that part of things.)
3. The Winterhawks have been fined $200,000.
4. Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ general manager and head coach, has been suspended for the rest of this season, including playoffs.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison was quoted in the news release:
“All WHL Clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our League Regulations or they will face significant consequences. 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 news release finished with this: “The Western Hockey League will not make any further public comments on this matter.”
Contacted by the Brandon Sun, Kelly McCrimmon, the owner, governor and general manager of the Wheat Kings, refused to comment, saying all teams, according to the paper, “had been instructed by the league not to comment on the matter.”
“All teams” must not have included the Winterhawks, because they issued a press release that summed up what they said were the “league’s findings.” Here, verbatim, is part of that release:
“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.”
The WHL, according to its release, is in full agreement with that latter point as it stated that the Winterhawks’ transgressions involved player benefits and not payments or enhanced education benefits.
The Winterhawks’ release also included this statement from Johnston:
“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.”
The Winterhawks, who I’m thinking all but issued a declaration of war in Johnston’s statement, also announced that Travis Green, their assistant GM/assistant coach, “will assume Johnston’s duties on an interim basis.”
As we have seen through the David Musil secret draft and the weekly injury report, the word ‘transparency’ isn’t in the WHL’s dictionary. Thus we are left to wonder if the WHL has taken a bunch of cannons into a war with a mosquito.
Because if this really was about a cell phone and a few flights for parents or family members, why wasn’t it dealt with behind closed doors? Why would the WHL subject itself to what is likely going to be an unmerciful beating in the media over the next while? (Maybe the WHL forgot that the NHL is locked out these days, meaning there are a whole bunch of writers and TV and radio people with a lot of time on their hands and not a lot to write or talk about.)
That beating began last night on Rogers Sportsnet where hockey analysts Nick Kypreos and Doug McLean hammered away. And if the WHL doesn’t produce some evidence of something more than a cell phone and a few flights, it isn’t going to get any better.
Sean Rooney, the sports editor of the Medicine Hat News, also hammered away in today’s newspaper. The complete column is right here.
“Oh WHL, you make life so hard for yourself sometimes,” he writes. “On Wednesday you took a bullhorn up to a stage, then took out the batteries.
“It’s clear you’ve been working on this for a while. You found out the Portland Winterhawks had done some shady things with regards to recruiting players. For the past four seasons, you said, there was ‘a series of player benefit violations.’
“Your audience gathered ‘round, eagerly awaiting the big announcement.
“What did they do? How will you punish them?
“In most trials, the public gets to hear the evidence before the verdict is read. But WHL, you’re above that because you’re a private entity. Hooray! Nobody needs to know why, they must only care about the end result.”
Later, Rooney continued . . .
“Feel bad for Portland... A lot of WHL teams have paid players and done a lot worse,” wrote the official Twitter account of the Eastern Washington University Eagles hockey team.
“Once again, the WHL refuses comment.”
If this really was about a cell phone and a few flights, then perhaps the Winterhawks are also being punished for perceived smugness and arrogance, for climbing too quickly from the blink of oblivion – they won 17, 11 and 19 games from 2006-07 through 2008-09 – into back-to-back WHL championship finals the last two seasons. Maybe they are being punished for the hiring of Garry Davidson as their director of player personnel prior to 2009-10. Davidson now is the general manager of the Everett Silvertips, but when he joined the Winterhawks, he left behind a long career with various BCHL franchises. He had been recruiting against the WHL for a long time and was in WHL circles the most-despised person in the game. And the Winterhawks, who had just been purchased by Calgary oil entrepreneur Bill Gallacher, heard about it from their brethren.
Surely, though, this is about more than that. Surely, the WHL’s board of governors wouldn’t hand out the incredibly tough santions that it did over a cell phone and a few flights.
Surely the WHL wouldn’t risk embarrassment by going after an organization or individual over something that is seemingly so petty, would it?
It’s Game 7 of the WHL championship final in May 2013. It’s the Winterhawks against any other team (pick one). Do you want to be one of the referees?
Or it’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final with the Saskatoon Blades, the host team for the 2013 Memorial Cup, facing any other team. The Winterhawks have already won the Western Conference. If the Blades win the East, the Western champ gets a Memorial Cup berth. Who wants to wear the stripes for Game 7?
You can rest assured of one thing. The Portland coaching staff won’t have any problem finding motivation now because it’s the Winterhawks against the world from this point on.
First up are the Seattle Thunderbirds, who visit Portland on Friday. The Winterhawks are in Everett against the Silvertips on Saturday.
The social media world being what it is, Twitter exploded Wednesday afternoon. Here’s a sampling . . .
TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie): “Like the Windsor situation, it's difficult to judge these cases because we have no details of specific violations and magnitude/scope.”
McKenzie, again: “For example, travel subsidies for parents is believed to be one aspect of violation but to what level did alleged violations take place?”
WesternEliteHockeyPr (@WEHPscout): “I don't think the Portland situation has much to do about the bantam draft but more about the euro's and Seth Jones. Noebels fishy kind of.”
Former Edmonton Oil Kings play-by-play voice AJ Jakubec (@AJonSports): “Pretty easy to figure out the cheaters. When Cam Newton turns down 180K at Miss St, he isn't playing for free at Auburn. Same applies in CHL)
Jeff Sargeant (@jeffthesarge): I am shocked at the severity of @TheWHL sanctions against @pdxwinterhawks! Hopefully the league comes clean on exactly why. #fans deserve it”
Dylan Bumbarger (@dylanb), who blogs regularly about the Winterhawks: “so if ‘no evidence of payments or enhanced education benefits’ what's left?”
Former Prince George Citizen sports editor Jim Swanson (@jswan11WBCnats): “Do the sanctions agains Portland Winterhawks go in the books as an upper- or lower-body injury? (Booted in balls?)”
More from Jakubec: “Figuring out who is cheating a lot easier than proving it. But there are teams in all 3 leagues that should be shaking now.”
From Saskatoon StarPhoenix sports writer Daniel Nugent-Bowman (@DNBsports): “The WHL should have a conference call to clear the air on the Portland situation. Would help quell speculation.”
And more from Jakubec: “Look forward to all the college hockey fans getting on their high horse. Because there's NO cheating in the NCAA! #hahaha #corrupt #likeFIFA”
The Vancouver Province’s Steve Ewen (@SteveEwen): “Who's betting there's more to the Winterhawks story than what we're reading in the statements from the team and league?”
From Yahoo! Sports’ Steve McAllister (@yahoomac): “Just once would love to see a CHL commish be completely transparent on an issue. Would stop the speculation. #asscovermode”

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