It looks like it’s game on for the lawsuit involving the Kitchener Rangers and The Michigan Daily newspaper.
Herschel Fink, the lawyer representing the University of Michigan student paper and reporter Matt Slovin, confirmed to Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday that his clients had both been served with libel notices.
“It’s really disturbing to me what the Rangers are doing and it’s bullying,” said Fink. “It’s bullying a student newspaper and student journalists who are reporting on a legitimate subject of public interest, particularly in the public interest of those who follow hockey.”
The Rangers are suing The Daily over a story published on July 2 in which Slovin reported – based on an anonymous OHL source – that Winnipeg Jets prospect Jacob Trouba had been offered $200,000 in lieu of an education package to play in the Ontario Hockey League this season. Such a payment would contravene the OHL’s rules pertaining to impermissible benefits. The Rangers hold the Canadian Hockey League rights to the standout defenceman, though he has been steadfast in his commitment to attend the University of Michigan and play hockey for the Wolverines.
On July 3, the Trouba family issued a statement through the university that began: “There is absolutely no truth or merit to the recent media reports that the Kitchener Rangers have offered Jacob any remuneration.”
This case has garnered national attention in both the U.S. and in Canada because of the number of intriguing facets to the case – sports, cross-border law, anonymous sourcing, the rights of journalists, and the ongoing war between the CHL and NCAA hockey.
That feud, said Fink, is what he believes is at the heart of Kitchener’s legal action.
“I think that The Daily and (Slovin) its columnist appear to be really pawns in some ongoing feud … between the Canadian Hockey League and the NCAA,” said Fink. “It’s really, as it occurs to me, nothing more than a PR battle, because I don’t see that the Rangers have anything to gain by proceeding in this case.”
According to Fink, The Daily was served its notice in person on Monday, while Slovin received his notice on Tuesday morning. The lawsuit was filed in a Kitchener court, which means both the paper and Slovin have 40 days from the time they have been served in order to file their statement of defence. The Rangers are seeking $1 million in damages – $500,000 in general damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.
Fink, a former reporter and editor himself, isn’t tipping his hand in terms of how he and his clients intend to proceed.
“There are a number of things we might consider doing in Canada,” said Fink, who worked as the night city editor for The Detroit News while he was going to law school. “I think, first of all, we could appear and oppose jurisdiction and argue that, simply, there is no jurisdiction whatsoever. As part of that we could also argue that the forum (in Kitchener) is inconvenient and ask that it could be dismissed because there is another very convenient forum – those are possibilities that would certainly have to be considered.”
The biggest fight between the two sides looks to be over where the case should be heard. Since the Rangers have filed suit in Canada, Fink is accusing the Rangers of forum shopping, since the libel laws in the U.S. generally tend to favour the defendants. He also notes that because the Rangers do business in the U.S. – particularly in Michigan – where the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit and Plymouth Whalers are located, the case should be heard by the U.S. courts.
“They clearly know where Detroit is and they clearly know the road,” said Fink. “They do business here. There are a lot of interesting possibilities, but I don’t know how far they want to take it.”
But as far as Ryder Gilliland, the lawyer representing the Rangers, is concerned - he believes they’re right to have their case heard in Kitchener.
“We are quite confident that the Ontario court does have jurisdiction given that the subject matter of the article is the Kitchener Rangers,” said Gilliland in an interview last week. “The story even quotes an OHL source, so it’s clearly dealing with Ontario matters and it clearly affects the Kitchener Rangers which are Ontario based.”
No matter where the suit ends up being heard – if it goes that far – one thing is certain: hockey fans, media, and lawyers alike will all be interested to see what happens next in this fascinating case.
“It’s almost a law school exam in international jurisprudence,” said Fink.