WHL drops hammer on Portland Winterhawks for rules violations

It appears Dean Millard's multiple sources were correct from earlier this month concerning recruitment violations on the part of the Portland Winterhawks. The Western Hockey League came down hard on the U.S. Division club Wednesday for "a series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons"

The Winterhawks will lose nine draft picks, including five first-rounders. Coach-GM Mike Johnston has been suspended for the balance of the 2012-2013 season and playoffs.

On top of that, they were fined $200,000.

Suffice to say, the WHL found something they didn't like taking place in Portland, and hammered them for it:

"All WHL Clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our League Regulations or they will face significant consequences," stated WHL Commissioner Ron Robison. "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."

So, there's that. Considering the WHL released in its statement saying that the player benefit violations took place over four years, it would be tough to pin this penalty on their recruitment of one player. The Winterhawks are one of the "have" teams in the WHL, having gone to the WHL Championship series two consecutive seasons. Of course, assuming Portland is the only team in the league that sees success off of bending the rules to their advantage is absurd.

The Windsor Spitfires were fined $400,000 by the Ontario Hockey League this summer (later reduced to $250K) and a few draft picks. Compared to that penalty, the one for the Winterhawks is severe, the key difference in being the suspension of Johnston for the rest of the season and playoffs.

The Windsor penalty was seen as a warning shot by major junior hockey across the bow of its "have" clubs, that once they're found out, the financial penalties will be stiff. The Winterhawks are 20-4-1-0, were the No. 3 club in the country in the last BMO CHL Top 10 poll, but were more importantly No. 1 in our Buzzing the Net Dynamic Dozen ranking.

Losing that constant piece through all that is certainly a blow, and one the Hawks were certainly appeal.

The Winterhawks were also sanctioned in 2010 for bringing an ineligible import player, curiously named "Red 23," to a training camp scrimmage. At that time, Johnston blamed "certain local bloggers" for "speculating that we were hiding players in camp". The Winterhawks owned Rocco Grimaldi's rights, but if he appeared in camp, he'd be ineligible for the NCAA. Rather, the mystery player turned out to be Alessio Bertaggia. Portland have had success with other imports recently, notably Nino Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi. They also won the recruitment of Seth Jones this summer after trading for his rights from the Everett Silvertips. Still, this was an investigation that appeared to take place over years, so it likely involves more than one player.

UPDATE (4:15 ET) -- The Winterhawks released a statement in response to the penalty, one that outlines their infractions:

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.

Johnston called the sanctions "excessive" and the team is "currently exploring [their] options on how [they] will proceed." Assistant coach Travis Green will handle the interim coaching duties.

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