One thing I've learned about the Portland Winterhawks - the rest of the WHL hates them.
Is it because they're cheaters or because they're successful? That's the question.
Wednesday afternoon, Commissioner Ron Robison slapped the CHL's second-ranked team with an earth-shattering suspension
for "multiple player benefit violations." The Winterhawks were stripped of first-round picks from 2013-17 and second- through fifth-round selections in the next bantam draft.
In addition, GM/coach Mike Johnston was suspended the remainder of the season, including playoffs.
Since the announcement, there have been dueling media releases. The league has stated: "We believe the sanctions are not excessive given the repeated and systemic nature of the violations." Portland has responded by saying it would like "more transparency in this process." First, a history lesson:
Portland won the Memorial Cup in 1998, but fell on hard times afterward, getting out of the first round twice in the next 10 years. Things bottomed out in 2006-07 and 2007-08, with just 28 victories combined. It was so bad on and off the ice that there were rumours of a move.
Calgary-based businessman Bill Gallacher (long rumoured to be a future NHL owner) bought the team in October 2008. He hired very highly regarded former Canucks and Kings associate coach Mike Johnston to run the hockey operations and the bench. In 2010, there was a 48-point improvement and Portland's first playoff berth in four years. Eight Winterhawks were taken in that year's NHL draft.
They've lost the WHL Final the last two seasons. They are 20-4-1 as of Friday afternoon.
Some of the foundation was left by former general manager Ken Hodge, who had an excellent 2007 Bantam draft - getting Brad Ross (later picked in the NHL by Toronto), Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh) and Ryan Johansen (Columbus). But, the Winterhawks raised eyebrows with what happened later.
Johnston would not comment for this story, but, apparently, the team decided that, to be successful, it had to take chances. The Winterhawks gambled (and won) by taking Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi in the import draft. They would chase after players who were risks to go to the NCAA and try to convince them to come.
There were failures, as the organization was turned down by the likes of AJ Michaelson (University of Minnesota), Reece Willcox (rights traded, he eventually chose Cornell) and Destry Straight (Boston College).
But, there were successes. Predators draftee Cam Reid, who said no to WHL teams in Vancouver and Edmonton, agreed to leave St. Cloud State when acquired at last season's trade deadline. Nineteen-year NHLer Pierre Turgeon's son, Dominic, was another player who chose Portland over the NCAA. Then, there was Seth Jones.
Jones, the son of former Toronto Raptor Popeye Jones, will be a very high pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. His WHL rights belonged to Everett, but he wished to be traded. Portland sent a conditional draft pick for the right to speak to him, then dealt four prospects to close the transaction.
Two weeks later, Jones chose the Winterhawks over the NCAA.
It's important to note that none of Jones, Turgeon or Reid are named in the violations. These were major coups for Portland, but met with great consternation by other teams. And, they weren't afraid to voice opinions.The confrontation
According to several sources, there was a WHL Board meeting last season where a few Governors went after Johnston. (Commissioner Ron Robison, quoted later, refused to comment on this.) No one would talk for the record, but it was a heated debate where he was accused of directly paying players to go to Oregon.
Specific names were thrown, along with dollar amounts ranging from $10,000-$200,000. Johnston angrily denied it and the facts back him up. There is no evidence in the WHL's independent audit of Portland saying anyone was illegally paid. Of the 43 travel violations, it appears only one involved the family of a player mentioned at that meeting.
But, it shows the heat the Winterhawks were facing. Portland's turnaround was quick, and, as one source said: "No one cared about Windsor when they were losing." (The OHL Spitfires were fined last summer for recruiting violations.) Teams wanted the WHL to do something.
"There was no documentation," Robison said. "If we had it, we would act on that. But we supported [Portland] from a league standpoint, because there was no documented evidence."
That changed after the Winterhawks traded one of their players. The parents called the new club and asked how to charge their flights to the organization. The team was surprised and said it couldn't do that. The parents said they had a "side letter" saying this was permitted.
The team asked to see it. According to one source, among the items listed were "one additional trip per parent per season," and "assistance with summer training expenses for up to $2100 for first year, up to $2700 for the remaining years."
The WHL's list of banned player benefits specifically mentions no "allowances for ...off-season training and development programs." And the flights? They've become the fulcrum of this debate.
The team sent the letter to the league.The investigation
Last month, the WHL hired a forensic auditor from PricewaterhouseCoopers in Calgary. (If one of these guys shows up at your door, run.) He went to Portland on October 16 and stayed until the 19th.
After the league announced its penalty, the Winterhawks released the details on their website, admitting the following violations:
*A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player's family and a summer training program (as mentioned above)
*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.
No one I've spoken to disputed any of this. According to sources, 20 of the violations came in 2010-11, 19 in 2011-12. The auditor found 43 parent-travel violations, which was 78 per cent of all incidents.
And that's become the battleground area.
One of the "Maximum Player Benefits Permitted by [the] WHL" is: "A Club may pay the return travel expenses, on one occasion for recruiting purposes, for a player's parents or guardians to visit the city of the WHL Club. With approval of the WHL office, a WHL club may request an additional trip(s) for recruiting purposes."
Those who feel the WHL brought a bazooka to a gunfight support the following viewpoints:
*A lawyer could easily pick apart those sentences to mean that, while being recruited you are limited to just one visit, but once you've committed, go nuts.
*Numerous reports have indicated the Winterhawks provided extra trips for families who needed the financial help to see their sons play, which is very generous.
*The overall cost of the disputed flights was somewhere around $25,000.
"Come on," one governor said. "Everyone else knows what that rule meant."
"If there are questions about our regulations being unclear, we have one person in the office who is there to answer," Robison said. "If there is an interpretation issue, it is incumbent on the club to make the effort to clarify. It was not done."
Teams can apply to pay for extra flights for financially needy families. Portland did not do that. And some of them were taken on the team's "parents' weekend," where the WHL's rules expressly state that lodging and meals can be paid for, but flights cannot.
"If you allow teams to do that, you're going to have a two-tiered league," said another. "The smaller markets aren't going to be able to compete. This had to be done to keep everyone in line.
"Portland kept saying they weren't cheating," he continued. "They got caught and are trying to make themselves look better."
"We had three goals here," Robison said. "To preserve a level playing field, to correct Portland's operations and to deter any other team."
It's a fight in the Ontario and Quebec leagues, too, with certain franchises being accused of similar largesse to get good players. What next?
"They should audit every single organization."
Of all the people I reached out to for this story, the angriest - and most willing to go on record - was agent Kurt Overhardt. (Two items of full disclosure: First, Overhardt was contacted because the "side letter" that caught Portland involved his client. Second, I did not know this, but Overhardt pointed out his own son is a Portland draftee.)
"The CHL has done a lot of good things for a lot of kids, but I don't have time to watch them shutter an organization that does an outstanding job on and off the ice," he said. "It's time it looked in every window just as thoroughly."
Asked about that, Robison pointed out that Portland was only investigated after documentation came to the league, and the same rules would apply to everyone else.
"I sat in Ryan Johansen's house when Portland showed up to convince him to come," Overhardt continued. "No money exchanged hands."
"It all got started because you had plenty of jealousy of the quality of recruits they've been able to scout, develop and get [NHL] drafted. Go to any bantam game and you'll see those guys are there... They basically outworked and outplanned people.
"It drives me insane. I trust Mike Johnston with my own son, I believe in this guy."
I'm trying to be careful about conclusions, because I don't regularly cover junior hockey -- especially not in Western Canada. But, after two days of conversations, here's what it looks like:
Clearly, the Winterhawks were a target. They convinced players to play in the WHL (or leave the NCAA) when no one else could. People are going to be suspicious about that. Gallacher is unpopular because he doesn't attend league meetings with the other owners. In one really heated debate, Johnston gave as good as he got (which was a lot), and when Portland did get caught - it unleashed a hornet's nest. Even if it wasn't for what other teams suspected.
Ultimately, it was so severe because the league felt Portland was being dishonest.
Teams who violate league regulations risk "a maximum fine of 25,000 and the forfeiture of a maximum of three first round draft picks" per offence. There's nothing in there about what happened to Johnston, but Robison said the WHL's bylaws allow the commissioner to suspend for "conduct detrimental to the league."
The Winterhawks have been aggressive in response, twice releasing statements to combat the WHL's own comments. Should they be more contrite?
Well, one critic of the punishment said, "I wouldn't call it a Kangaroo Court, because that's unfair to Kangaroos." Another said Johnston is basically being defamed and should sue.
The WHL doesn't have a formal appeal process, but Robison indicated Friday that there is a mechanism for the Winterhawks to meet with the league and present a case. And, there are people who believe the team should be softer with its presentation.
"When Windsor was punished, it never made noise, it did everything quietly," one said. "The penalty was lessened. I'd advise Portland to do the same."
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