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Portland broke rules, but WHL’s motivation for stiff sanctions still questioned

'Free Mike' T-shirts supporting Mike Johnston have popped up in Portland (via Taking Note)At the end of the day, the Portland Winterhawks' deadly sin was pride. The Western Hockey League's might have been envy. Or wrath. Wrath could work too.

Four days in, the furore between the WHL and the Rose City Rogues shows little sign of abating. League commissioner Ron Robison belatedly did the media rounds to explain and expound (see Hour 3 in that link on why the Winterhawks' "lack of disclosure on these benefits" justified the penalty.

Ed Willes also reported that the "smoking gun" came when Portland traded Seth Swenson to Seattle last season, which seems to be have been corroborated by Elliotte Friedman's reporting about a player with a side deal. Coincidentally, the Thunderbirds were Portland's opponent on Friday when fans broke out the "Free Mike" shirts in support of suspended coach-GM Mike Johnston, who's banned from WHL arenas for the rest of the season.

It will not end there. The WHL's choice for a cone of silence and the way Portland responded — mounting a PR offensive instead of going through back channels in time-honoured hockey fashion — blew it up. It might have also given officials in the Oregon city cold feet about renovating an arena for a team which might struggle in 2016-17 and '17-18 if the penalty stands. That is an odd unintended consequence for Robison's WHL, which has really worked hard to get all 22 teams playing in modern arenas.

[Sunaya Sapurji: WHL, Portland in a winter of discontent]

That, unfortunately for the WHL, will leave people wondering if Portland got whacked for rebuilding too well. Friedman, even while trying to be circumspect for a CBC readership, starts off by saying the "the rest of the WHL" hates the Winterhawks but, "Is it because they're cheaters or because they're successful?" People will draw their own conclusions, of course.

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 [current Columbus Blue Jackets forward] 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." (CBC Sports)

The higher one climbs, the more he exposes. Perhaps Portland might have anticipated the turnaround it has since Bill Gallacher bought the then-sputtering team fewer than five years ago would attract scrutiny. At the same time, further to Overhardt's point, it's a natural reaction to get defensive and huffy if you feel there are double standards.

From Willes:

... League sources maintain the Winterhawks could have emerged from the WHL's investigation relatively unscathed. But every time the team was questioned or asked to explain itself, their reaction was a combination of defiance and belligerence.

"They said it was envy," said a league source. "It was everybody else's fault.

"It was the volume of the offences and the lack of respect that drove this thing."

The whole matter reportedly came to a head last January when Seattle acquired Seth Swenson from Portland in a trade. Sometime later, it became apparent that Swenson had a separate deal with Portland outside the standard WHL players' agreement.

"That was the smoking gun," said another league source. (Vancouver Province)

It is a grey area. Friedman concludes, "Clearly, the Winterhawks were a target."

This can go one of (at least) two ways. Either the WHL codifies everything that is permissible with player benefits and builds (naive statement alert) more trust between member teams so there is less incentive to make "a separate deal." That's the positive. The negative is that the status quo prevails and it looks like there was a dragnet was run to take down one high-flying team, rather than trying to hold everyone to account. The penalties will catch up to the Winterhawks at some point. In the short run, though, they could become the vintage Al Davis Oakland/L.A. Raiders on skates, outlaws turned into folk heroes.

In an unrelated matter, the Winterhawks beat Seattle 5-2 on Friday. That upped their point percentage to a WHL-best .827.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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