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An open letter to the WHL. ... Portland awaits your reply.

Dear Ron Robison, commissioner, Western Hockey League:

I’m writing this after unsuccessful attempts the past two days to get you on the phone through Cory Flett, the WHL director of communications, to discuss the recent penalties levied on the Portland Winterhawks.

As a matter of record, my voice messages to Flett (they went unanswered) didn’t reveal the nature of my call, though I’ll bet he could guess I wasn’t inquiring about the possibility of the Flin Flon Bombers re-joining the league.

I was able to connect with Justin Conley, a student intern, who politely answered the office phone. He said Flett is the only one authorized to make comments on the Portland situation, but that he had been told there would be no further comment beyond Wednesday’s news release from the league office.

The Wednesday release was clear on the penalties: A $200,000 fine; loss of nine draft picks, including the first five from next year’s draft and first-round picks for the next five years; and the suspension for the rest of the season, including playoffs, for Mike Johnston from his duties as head coach and general manager.

The release, however, was considerably more wanting for information on the alleged crimes: “Multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits.” The league also noted there was no evidence of payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players beyond WHL rules.

The Winterhawks released their own statement Wednesday with details oF the violations as a result of the WHL’s audit, which comprised of covering the cost of several dozen flights for players’ family members from their homes to Portland over the past five years, payment for summer training programs for three players and providing a cell phone for the team captain for three years. (The WHL basically confirmed in another release Thursday what the Winterhawks had said, by counting up each individual allegation and saying the team committed 54 violations).

You have to admit, Commissioner Robison, this all begs for some clarification from the league. If the Hawks are telling the truth, it sounds as if they’ve been issued a death sentence for jaywalking.

I mean, a $200,000 fine for a major junior amateur franchise? Sure, Calgary oilman owner Bill Gallacher is a wealthy man, but that amount is beyond excessive. A season-long suspension for Johnston? What did he do, sexually abuse some of his players? Nine draft picks, including first-rounders the next five seasons? The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

I asked former Hawks coach Mike Williamson for his read on the penalties. Williamson, now head coach of the WHL Calgary Hitmen, said he’d heard rumors that the Portland franchise was being investigated for improprieties.

“I was shocked when I saw how heavy the sanctions were,” Williamson said. “The two don’t add up. The league either went way overboard or there’s more to the story.”

Two other former Portland coaches had similar reactions.

“I know Ron Robison,” said Brent Peterson, now operations advisor with the NHL Nashville Predators. “He’s a good, fair person. But if the violations listed are all that it was, that’s crazy, nit-picky stuff. The Winterhawks had to do something a lot worse to get those kind of sanctions. Way worse.”

“I don’t think this was directed with any vengeance toward Portland,” said Ken Hodge, now a consultant with the Winterhawks. “The league’s concern is to have a reliable product on the ice and a level playing field.

“But the punishment was very harsh. In my wildest dreams, I’d never have imagined anything coming down as severely as it did.”

I’ve spoken with a few other sources around the league about the Winterhawks’ situation. A familiar refrain is there were charges from other clubs of recruiting violations — i.e., that the Hawks have made six-figure under-the-table payments to lure such players as Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi.

The three-day audit, in which the Hawks were forced to turn over all their financial records, along with interviews of Johnston and team president Doug Piper, revealed no evidence of illegal activities with any players in that regard. The league said as much in its press release.

But the Hawks did fly in family members on an in-need financial basis, between 40 and 50 flights which I’m going to guess cost them somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 over the past five years. WHL rules prohibit clubs paying for airfare for families on the parents’ weekend that every team has once a season, but unless I’m missing it, don’t specifically address other times. The Hawks felt they were within the rules on that one.

The WHL allows teams to pay for parents' lodging and food during the parents' weekend, but not flights. And the Winterhawks' policy is to not pay for food and lodging.

The Winterhawks got caught with their hands in the cookie jar by three times paying for a player’s one-week summer training session. That probably set back the club a total of $2,000.

Then there were the cell phones they provided for the team captain for three seasons. With a season lasting as long as eight months, that could have come at a cost of as much as $2,500 or so.

But I’m wondering what it cost the Moose Jaw Warriors last year to provide Blackberry Playbooks to each of their players as a Christmas holidays gift? I’m thinking somewhere between $160 and $250 a pop.

I know — there are no limitations on Christmas gifts in the WHL bylaws. But why not? (The Hawks gave each of their players a $75 gift certificate last Christmas).

And don’t players representing each of the Saskatchewan franchises have some sort of endorsement deals with cell phone companies? Otherwise, why would their photos be plastered on billboards across the countryside? Is there any prohibition on that?

I hear there is plenty of resentment around the league at Gallacher, who rescued a flailing Portland franchise in 2008 and built it into a powerhouse that has reached the league finals the past two years and owns a record of 20-4-1 this season.

Gallacher, it is said, promised to attend regular team meetings but has not done so, opting to have Piper served as the club’s representative to the WHL Board of Governors. There is a bit of an old-boys network in existence in the league these days, and Gallacher isn’t a member. Are his owner brethren looking to stick it to him? Have they influenced you, Commissioner Robison, to do so?

You’ve turtled when the media has asked for some transparency in all of this. It’s not a good sign. What do you have to hide?

These are the questions I need to ask you as commissioner — and I’ll take your answers off the air:

• Were the Winterhawks not listing all of their infractions? What other egregious acts did they commit? And how did you come up with the $200,000 figure? Was there any comparison to the penalties levied on the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires in August?

The OHL — also under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League, governing body of the three major junior leagues in North America, including the WHL — fined the Spitfires $400,000 and took away seven future draft picks for violations of player benefit and recruitment rules. The fine was later reduced to $250,000 upon appeal.

• What is the next greatest fine in WHL history? The highest one I could find was $5,000 (and a four-game suspension) for Everett coach Kevin Constantine, who was found guilty of abuse of players in 2006.

• What are the WHL rules regarding flight expenses for parents? Other than for parents’ weekend, are they specifically addressed in the league handbook?

• Has there ever been a forensic audit of another WHL franchise like the one done on the Winterhawks?

“There have been accusations directed toward other teams in the past,” one source told me, “but never have they been so thorough as in their investigation of the Winterhawks.”

If that is true, why?

• What is the appeals process? Is there an appeals process? The Winterhawks say they don’t know.

Shouldn’t that be in the books somewhere?

• Is the goal here to bury a franchise? With the loss of so many vital draft picks, how can the Winterhawks ever be expected to recover?

The timing of the league announcement couldn’t have been worse. A proposal for a $31.5-million renovation to Memorial Coliseum was to go to the Portland City Council on Thursday night. That’s been tabled now. This won’t help convince the city to cover all but $10 million of the cost.

It would seem to me that a fine of $30,000 — covering the cost of the flights, the summer training sessions and the cell phones — could be warranted. And perhaps a five-game suspension of Johnston, and loss of this year’s first-round pick in the bantam draft. If and when you get around to the appeals process, Commissioner Robison, I urge you to consider that.

Sorry this note was so lengthy, but there was so much to discuss. It wouldn’t have been necessary if you’d just met a media request to explain an unprecedented situation in league history. Perhaps it is hard to answer the phone with blood on your hands.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers




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