The Western Hockey League has come down hard on the Portland Winterhawks after ruling that the club violated player benefit regulations over the past four seasons.
The Winterhawks have been fined $200,000 and banned from taking part in the first five rounds of next year’s WHL Bantam Draft. The club also loses its first-round picks in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Winterhawks head coach/ general manager Mike Johnston — a former Brandon University Bobcats captain — has been suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.
"All WHL clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our league regulations or they will face significant consequences," league commissioner Ron Robison said in a statement. "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."
The league did not divulge the violations and refused to comment further, although Robison did add in the news release that "there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL regulations."
The Winterhawks issued their own release outlining the violations, including flights for eight players’ families, paying for summer training programs for three players and providing a cell phone for three seasons for the team’s captain.
"After fully co-operating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they were in the line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed," Johnston said in the release.
Johnston said the Winterhawks believe that most of the infractions were not against the rules.
"We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed," he said. "Despite our objections, the league has made its decision and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship."
Since being bought by Bill Gallacher in 2008, the Winterhawks have gone from being the bottom team in the league to appearing in the last two WHL finals. They are among the league’s top teams again this season with a 20-4-1-0 record. Assistant coach/assistant GM Travis Green will take over for Johnston for the rest of the season.
When reached by the Sun, Brandon Wheat Kings owner/ general manager Kelly McCrimmon said that all teams had been instructed by the league not to comment on the matter.
NOTES: The Winterhawks were also punished by the WHL in 2010 after having future Wheat King Alessio Bertaggia take part in a training camp scrimmage before he was chosen in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft … Portland was already without picks in the first and fourth rounds of the 2013 draft due to trades … Portland’s 2014 first-rounder is currently hanging in the balance as part of a conditional trade. Should the deal go through, the Winterhawks would forfeit their second- and third-round choices instead … In August, the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires were fined $400,000 and stripped of five high draft picks for recruitment violations, although after an appeal the sanctions were reduced to $250,000 and four draft choices.
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