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Winterhawks’ punishment by WHL likely no boon to small-market teams

Suspended Winterhawks coach-GM Mike JohnstonRon Toigo, a rich man indeed, cannot be expected to keep track of all his financial wheeling-dealing.

The owner of the Vancouver Giants — a big-market Western Hockey League team with ample resources, like those renegades in the Rose City, the Portland Winterhawks — spoke on the record about the WHL's sanctions on Thursday. One has to think that, given this is an owner of long standing in the league, that is something close to the WHL's party line. Toigo said the rules Portland broke are in place to save major junior hockey in smaller centres. He might have forgotten about favours he's paid to past Giants players out of the goodness of his heart that were within the rules, but might have been too rich for the Swift Currents and Prince Georges of the world.

From Elliott Pap:

Toigo has been a league governor for 20 years. He owned the Tri-City Americans before starting the expansion Giants in 2001-02. He explained the current rules are in place to protect the small-market franchises.

"The league has to be set up in such a way that Moose Jaw and Swift Current have just as much a chance as Vancouver, Portland and Calgary," Toigo said. "The group in Portland did a good job bringing that franchise back to life and it's unfortunate it has come to this. I imagine they are going to go through the appeal process (to the Board of Governors) so I don't think this story is over now by any means." (Vancouver Sun)

Those with long memories might have read that and thought back to the 2006 MasterCard Memorial Cup, when the Giants went as WHL champions. As The Canadian Press reported (Google turned up more links, but this was the only working one; man, Google really is making us more forgetful) on May 16, 2006, "Owner Ron Toigo bought the players Armani suits to wear to the tournament."

Perhaps it was not Armani, but you get the drift. An owner with practically endless resources provided something out of necessity to major junior players who are practically unpaid labour. Toigo was, if memory serves taken to the task by the WHL for his largesse and it created a sensation in the Vancouver media. It certainly did not get national media play, though, inasmuch as it seems to have been forgotten (or Google-whacked). It was a rich guy with a big heart doing something nice for his players.

That was bound to cause resentment among have-nots who cannot afford to do the same. Portland might be able to afford airfare for the parents of a European player (hypothetically speaking?), but Swift Current cannot. Only now, it's suddenly a greater problem.

It is a stretch to believe those small-market teams that have supposedly been protected by Portland's punishment would be able to do the same thing. Prince George has lost money. The business operations staff in Swift Current should have received Queen's Diamond Jubilee medals for helping the Broncos turn a profit in a city of 15,000 people without benefit of a playoff appearance.

That makes it tough to swallow the justification. They are in a lower league financially compared to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton or Portland. Or in the instance of the OHL, London, Kitchener and Windsor. Or the QMJHL's hub city teams such as the Quebec Remparts, Halifax Mooseheads, Moncton Wildcats and Saint John Sea Dogs.

The leagues would have codify everything to effect that change and increase revenue sharing. Would they really want to, when it might mean each owner takes a smaller slice of the major junior hockey pie?

From Gregg Drinnan:

There is no level playing field to preserve. Unfortunately, those days are gone forever. With no expense caps in place, how are the community-owned, small-market teams in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Swift Current and Lethbridge expected to compete with the big-market teams that have more revenue streams? How are the privately owned Brandon Wheat Kings expected to compete?

If the WHL wants to try and maintain anything close to a level playing field, perhaps it's time to implement a revenue-sharing plan of some sort. That would mean putting a cap on expenses and running everything, including player and coach contracts, through a league auditor. (Taking Note)

Please bear in mind no one is criticizing Ron Toigo in any way. Good on him for all he does for his players, but why did no one cry "PBV!" at that time?

It just underlines that these inequities between teams in an 'A' market and those in a 'D' market are not going to be made up on the backs of the Portland Winterhawks and billionaire owner Bill Gallacher. The way to address competitive balance in junior hockey — within the CHL and Canadian Junior Hockey League, too — is much more complicated.

Let us not kid ourselves. Okay?

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

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