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Winterhawks’ punishment from WHL widely seen as heavy-handed

Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison (Aaron Bell, CHL Images)

The Western Hockey League might be judge and jury in BenefitGate — but it's not faring well in the court of public opinion after punishing the Portland Winterhawks.

A commissioner in sports is like a politician who has to direct and lead opinion. Being out front on controversy is the name of the game in politics, as is understood from everyone in the various inner circles down to people who were really into The West Wing a few years back. The WHL and commissioner Ron Robison were bold to drop the hammer on league-leading Portland and coach-GM Mike Johnston, especially in a season when they seem capable of bringing the Dub its first MasterCard Memorial Cup title since 2008 (the current four-year drought is the league's longest since the host-team tournament format was adopted in 1983). They felt compelled to shoot now, rather than hold their powder and try to revise the rules that were broken by sitting in a boardoom next summer.

As bold as it was, though, now it has to face the question of whether the juice is worth the squeeze. Based on a survey of the opinion out there in the media, it looks like the WHL might have bitten off more than it could chew.

The league claims the Winterhawks committed 54 infractions involving 14 players. Portland, which by the way has a home game Friday night against Seattle, are challenging the WHL's arithmetic. It's also very possible that the reason this was so severe was because, as Gregg Drinnan reported, "One person familiar with the situation told me last night that Johnston had the opportunity to 'come clean' in June and again in October" and apparently did not every time. As a general rule, investigators into any alleged wrongdoing really hate if someone does not tell truth; just look at how Barry Bonds was dragged through the court system across the past few years.

That matters within the WHL internally. Externally, though, the way this is playing out raises questions about to what end Portland was punished. Most of the opinion has been squarely behind the Winterhawks. The league has also, perhaps indirectly, primed people to expect more teams to get slammed.

From Steve Ewen:

You really wonder this is going. The Winterhawks can't be the only team in WHL history that's played fast and loose. How much dirty laundry is going to get unveiled? (Vancouver Province)

'Crippling a franchise'

Moreover, the penalty itself has been perceived as a bit much, even though Portland had only two choices in the first five rounds of next spring's bantam draft. (Even then, making them wait until about 150 of the best 1998-born players is scarily akin to sanctions in the NCAA, since it will punish players who are not even on the team yet.)

Damien Cox, writing in Canada's largest newspaper, said "on the basis of the information we know, it surely seems a draconian punishment." Out in Halifax, the Chronicle-Herald's Chris Cochrane surmised: "I figured outrageous violations were involved. But that's not really the case, at least according to a WHL summary of the situation posted on the Winterhawks website."

Sportsnet analyst Doug MacLean likening it to the Ohio State Buckeyes being barred from a bowl game this season due to NCAA probation because players traded team gear for tattoos.

"Could the Western Hockey League have sent as strong a message by fining them $25,000, a 10-game suspension [for Mike Johnson] . . . could the same message be sent without crippling a franchise? That's my biggest problem with what happened yesterday. For what they did, that's the death penalty. That's like Ohio State getting the death penalty because their kids got tattoos." (Hockey Central At Noon, via Taking Note)

(Eerie parallel, given that Ohio State might win the national championship this season while on probation.)

Is that really what the WHL wants? To be have the same image its sworn enemy has for engaging in heavy-handed, selective enforcement where it punishes student-athletes who did not do anything wrong? The NCAA has been a media punching bag for years thanks to being callous and cold toward its essential labour, the players. It almost proves whatever point the proposed 'chalupa' thought it made.

'Based on need'

There is much more that makes this an "I've lost Cronkite" moment for the WHL. There's the consistency arguments. If a team cannot issue a cell phone to its captain who is a "de facto team employee" (in Jess Rubenstein's wording), then why other WHL players' likenesses "plastered on billboards across the countryside" advertising cell-phone companies? That seems like a fair question.

There's the compassionate argument that most of what the Winterhawks supplied was done out of necessity.

From Rubenstein:

The Winterhawks offering a player's family plane tickets BASED ON NEED during the season so the player's family can see their child shouldn't be a violation to begin with.

If you ... realize also that not every hockey family can afford to fly to see their son then this is a rule that needs to go. These kids leave home in the middle of August and if they play on a team like the Winterhawks that makes the WHL Finals is gone until May.

If the Winterhawks were paying players under the table in order to get them to play in Portland then yes by all means punish them harshly. (The Prospect Park)

The most trenchant insight of all, though, comes via the Saskatoon StarPhoenix's Daniel Nugent-Bowman. Remember, when Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch dinged the Windsor Spitfires for $250,000 and a whack of draft picks, it stemmed partially due violations of the league's recruitment policies. In this case, we are talking about what was given to players who had already joined Portland, at least as far as we know.

The Windsor Spitfires were stripped of three first-round draft picks and two second-rounders and were fined $400,000 — later reduced to $250,000 — in August.

But that was for violating the league's player benefit and recruitment rules and policies, seemingly a bigger transgression. Also, general manager Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner were allowed to stay on.

So either the WHL is ruling with an iron fist or the Winterhawks — who sit second in the WHL with a 20-4-1-0 mark — have been up to greater misdeeds.

We don't really know. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix)

Rules are rules, so no one should argue the Winterhawks deserved leniency specifically because Johnston, owner owner Bill Gallacher and others revived a franchise that was rotting and forgotten in the Rose City.

It's about what is appropriate. It is tough to glean how this fits. If this is such a problem in the Western Hockey League, get all 22 teams on the same page about what can and cannot be offered to players and hockey parents. Turn the air-conditioning off on a hot afternoon in June during the board of governors' meetings and sweat out the truth.

Formalize what can be done for the players. Please keep in mind that if you don't have players who are treated well and looked after, you have no game.

Perception is nine-10ths of a league ruling's impact. This is being taken as over-the-top. Portland, as a U.S.-based team which shares a market with behemoth athletic program in the Oregon Ducks, also knows to take its cue from a major college that has been put in a corner by the NCAA. It knows the best tack is 'fess up and argue the punishment down. It seems to be winning on that count. For the WHL, standing its ground might end up turning the Winterhawks into major junior hockey's antiheroes.

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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