For years the Ontario Hockey League had been accused of having some teams that would break the rules in order to get an edge on luring the best available talent to report. For years when making such references, reporters had to use words like allegedly and rumour. No team in the OHL had ever been caught.
That all changed on Friday.
On Friday, the OHL announced that the Windsor Spitfires had been found guilty of breaking the league’s rules in regards to recruitment and benefits. The Spitfires have been fined $400,000 and will forfeit five draft picks as a result. The high picks include first-round picks in 2013, 2014 and 2016 as well as second-round picks in 2015 and 2017, which could potentially cripple the club’s on-ice product if it intends to bid to host the 2014 Memorial Cup.
“On one hand it’s a real dark day for our league,” said OHL commissioner Dave Branch, who also serves as the president of the Canadian Hockey League. “But we’re going to try to turn a negative into a positive. We want to deliver a message that in our view because of the severity of it and how the league has dealt with it, it will reinforce with our players and our fans and league sponsors and everyone around us that, ‘Hey, we don’t stand for unfair and improper practices.’ ”
Branch said that he had spoken to Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel and coach Bob Boughner – both former NHLers who are co-owners of the team along with Peter Dobrich – about the league’s decision. The Spitfires have 10 days to file an appeal with the OHL board of governors and from the sounds of it, they aren’t taking this decision in stride.
The team released a statement on Friday afternoon denying all the allegations put forth by the league.
“It is the team’s position that there is no evidence to support this decision, nor did the league follow due process or its own rules regarding procedural fairness in the making of this decision,” said the release.
“We will pursue all avenues of appeal regarding the decision made by the Commissioner, David Branch.”
Calls left for Rychel on Friday were not returned.
According to the league the maximum fine for an infraction is $250,000 plus the loss of up to three draft picks. Branch would not get into specific numbers, saying only that the Spitfires were guilty of “more than one” infraction. The investigation, which took more than a year to complete, was conducted by retired OPP superintendant Ken Miller, who was hired by the OHL in 2010 as the league’s enforcement officer and director of security. Branch said he was not part of the process, but that Ted Baker -- the league’s vice-president – works closely with Miller whenever an allegation is made against a club.
“There were allegations made to the league,” said Branch. “It caused Ted to instruct Ken to investigate.”
When asked whether the allegations came from inside or outside of the league, Branch declined to comment.
“It doesn’t matter where it comes from,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s the end result and that’s where the focus is.”
Branch added that Miller has conducted a number of investigations since joining the OHL, though this is the first time a team has been found to have broken the rules. Last month allegations were made against the Kitchener Rangers when The Michigan Daily cited an anonymous OHL source who alleged the team had offered to pay Winnipeg Jets prospect Jacob Trouba $200,000 to forgo his commitment to the University of Michigan. The Rangers have since filed a defamation suit in Kitchener court against the newspaper and reporter Matt Slovin.
“On the Trouba matter we instructed (Miller) to investigate, which he did fully,” said Branch. “His report and recommendation was that there was no substance at all to the allegations, so that matter is closed. Kitchener, as I understand it, is still pursuing some legal remedies because of the concerns over such damaging statements.”
The $400,000 fine is the largest ever levied by the OHL. In 1998, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League found both the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Chicoutimi Sagueneens guilty of collusion for a trade that included 10 players, prospects, draft picks, and cash – which was against the league’s bylaws. In that case, both teams were each fined $100,000 and lost two years’ worth of first-round draft picks.
One thing is for sure, by dropping the hammer on the Spitfires, Branch is sending a clear message about trying to maintain fairness and parity in his league.
“It’s a message that all our teams wish to make,” said Branch. “They put a program in place for the benefit of ensuring compliance and this is the first real test we’ve had.”