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What’s next for the Portland Winterhawks?

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.

It's interesting to note, though, that the WHL's statement never mentions the word "recruiting," instead referring to "player benefit violations." Perhaps those are one and the same, but the OHL's sanctions of the Windsor Spitfires earlier this year specifically made mention of a violation of recruiting rules.

Also of note is the wording of the draft pick penalties to the Winterhawks. According to the WHL statement, Portland has been "suspended from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft." Portland didn't have a first- or fourth-round pick next year anyway, so this is essentially a loss of three picks. But the wording makes it sound like the Winterhawks would be also be prohibited from acquiring a pick in the top five rounds from another team.

On the other hand, the WHL slightly changes its wording on the subsequent penalties, referring to a "forfeiture" of first-round picks from 2014-17. That sounds different from being suspended from participating in the first round of the draft, so it seems that it would be OK for the Winterhawks to trade players for first-round picks in some or all of those drafts.

If that's the case, there are ways the franchise can somewhat mitigate the disaster. Sure, the team will be extremely thin in 1998-born talent because of the 2013 draft sanctions, but the Winterhawks are pretty well positioned for now with '96- and '97-born players.

Portland will probably continue to make an all-out run at this year's WHL title, but if the Hawks take a bit of a step backward next year and don't quite look like a title contender, it wouldn't be a terrible strategy to trade one or more high-quality players for future first-round picks to help restock the roster later. It would require waving a white flag in the short term, but the team may be able to prevent bottoming out a few years down the road.

For now, Portland will rely on assistant coach/assistant GM Travis Green to lead the team the rest of the season. The current team will surely miss head coach/GM Mike Johnston as he serves out his suspension, but things probably won't take long to get back to normal with Green at the helm. Green has often run practices and even served as head coach during games when Johnston was busy with GM duties.

As for what Johnston can do now:

Johnston has not been told by the league exactly what his suspension means, other than him not coaching. He isn't sure if he's allowed to be in his office, or watch the game from the stands, or still do front-office business.

He isn't sure what he will do Friday, if he will stay home and listen to the game on the internet.

"I haven't thought that far ahead yet,'' said Johnston. "It's been a tough 24 hours, I'll tell you that.'' (The Oregonian)

Twitter reaction from Portland fans after the news broke centered mostly around anger at the WHL and support of their team, while followers of opposing clubs have mostly expressed the opinion that the Winterhawks' recent run of success is "tainted," if not an outright sham.

Portland's players -- normally a chatty bunch on Twitter -- have remained silent about the news. The Winterhawks face the Seattle Thunderbirds at home Friday in the first game of a suddenly new era.

UPDATE (11/29): In a follow-up story, the Oregonian's Buker writes that the flights were given to players who had already signed with the team, further muddling the situation. Buker also cites team sources who insist the Winterhawks listed all transgressions and aren't hiding anything.

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Cam Charron, Kelly Friesen