Portland Winterhawks coach-GM Mike Johnston (Portland Winterhawks)It sounds like there's an appeal forthcoming, but for now the Portland Winterhawks are facing an uncertain future after being assessed heavy penalties for violations of the WHL's player benefit rules, which our own Cam Charron outlined earlier today.
While much has been made at the lack of specific information about the infractions in the WHL's statement (and the WHL's assertion that Portland did not pay players under the table or provide extra education benefits), the subsequent statement issued by the Winterhawks with the intent of clarifying their misdeeds seems to have raised more questions than it answered.
Confusion centers specifically around the context of the airfare the team provided to the families of as many as eight players over the last four seasons. The team's statement doesn't say whether those flights were given to players who had already signed a WHL contract, or if they were offered as an enticement to sign with the Hawks.
The distinction is important, because the latter interpretation suggests a recruiting advantage that could have netted the Winterhawks a certain number of players they otherwise wouldn't have signed. (see UPDATE below)
Portland, geographically, is an outpost in the WHL, as it's further from the Canadian border than any other CHL team. Despite being a big city with a major international airport, getting there can be difficult and expensive for some folks that live within the WHL's territory. It's also likely that a travel arrangement would greatly benefit European players, as distance has always been an obstacle to bringing such players to the CHL.
Now-suspended Portland head coach/GM Mike Johnston told the Oregonian's Paul Buker today that he was cooperative with the league as far as any financial matters, and added that the team is pursuing appeal options:
Johnston said the WHL "came in and went over our books'' a few weeks ago, "to make sure we had not paid a player, an agent, or a parent.'' He said the Hawks made no attempt to hide expenses for airline tickets. (The Oregonian)
The idea that the Winterhawks would want to help far-flung parents of their players come to Portland to see their kid play is far from offensive. And if it was just that -- helping families of already current players with their travel expenses -- then today's punishment is unnecessarily severe.
But, if these flights were in fact used as a recruiting tool (especially with the European stars the Hawks have featured recently), then the sanctions are more in line with the allegations.
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