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WHL-Winterhawks saga continues, with Portland still hoping to plead its case

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Travis Green, who has been coaching the Portland Winterhawks during the Western Hockey League's suspension of coach Mike Johnston, checks the scoreboard during a recent home win over Prince George.Owner Bill Gallacher, president Doug Piper and general manager/head coach Mike Johnston will converge on Las Vegas for the semi-annual Western Hockey League Board of Governors meeting (what, you thought they’d break bread in Saskatoon?) Monday and Tuesday unsure if the recent Winterhawks’ sanctions will be on the agenda.

To refresh your memory, on Nov. 28, Portland was fined $200,000, Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the season and the playoffs and the Winterhawks lost nine draft picks — including their first-rounder for each of the next five years — for violations occurring over the past five years.

The most egregious of the violations were flights provided to seven families (based on financial need and their distance from Portland) two to four times a season, providing a cell phone for three captains and payment for summer training programs for three players.

After the Winterhawks released their alleged offenses, the WHL responded with a statement of its own, listing “54 violations involving 14 players.”

Every one-way flight provided was included as a violation. You decide whether the league was trying to make the club look bad.

Commissioner Ron Robison initially intended to stay mum on the subject, hoping to let the WHL statement stand without answering questions. Once the Hawks released their statement, Robison evidently felt compelled to conduct some media interviews, though he didn’t respond to Portland Tribune requests made through Cory Flett, the league’s director of communications.

Flett, in fact, never returned multiple calls from me when word initially broke about the sanctions, asking for an interview with Robison to explain the sanctions. A month later, after the Hawks had sent the WHL a letter indicating a formal request for an appeal, I called Flett several times for the league’s response. No return call until three days later, and I’d already written about it.

Incredibly, the WHL has no means by which to appeal sanctions in its bylaws. (And by the way, the league never has provided a written explanation to the Hawks specifying what the violations are.)

Portland executives asked for formation of a special WHL committee to consider the case. They wanted a hearing, which seems reasonable given that the sanctions were far and away the worst in the league’s long history. (For instance, the previous high fine rendered by the league was $5,000).

The league turned down that request.

So the Hawks have targeted next week’s Board of Governors meeting as the time to plead their case.

The Board of Governors includes a representative from each of the 22 WHL teams — normally the owner, but in four or five cases, it’s the club president. That’s the way it is with Portland. Gallacher, an oil tycoon often on the move internationally, has designated Piper as the Hawks’ governor. Alternative governors fill in if the regular representative can’t attend.

The BOG meets twice a year — in June and in February — to discuss league matters, including television and vendor contracts, NHL and Canadian Hockey League issues as they pertain to the WHL and other various agenda items.

Gallacher, who has rarely attended since purchasing the Hawks in 2008, will be there this time with Piper and Johnston.

“We’re going to this meeting,” Piper says. “We’ve been talking with the league office. We feel like we’re in a good place with the league on this.

“We’re going to the meetings optimistic that we’re moving in the direction to a solution we can all live with.”

Have the Hawks been given indication by Robison — who has said he made the decision on the Portland sanctions unilaterally — that they will be allowed to present their case before their WHL brethren?

“They’re working on a mechanism by which we will have some opportunity,” Piper says. “That’s all I can really talk about that at this point.”

That’s more than Robison will say. I called Flett on Tuesday, and to my surprise, he responded soon after I left a message. I asked if he could tell me the status of Portland’s formal request for an appeal of the sanctions, and he said he wasn’t in the loop on that. He could find out, he said, unless I wanted to talk directly to Robison about it.

Sure I did, I told Flett.

Flett said the commissioner was in a meeting “for the next 30 minutes,” and indicated he thought we might be able to speak after that, and he would get back to me.

I never heard again from Flett, even after leaving him multiple messages over the next three days. (Yes, you got it right — he’s the WHL’s director of communications.) Perhaps both Flett and Robison have been out of commission with that nasty flu bug that has been going around. Probably not.

I don’t share Piper’s optimism about favorable results from next week’s BOG meeting. I can’t see peers who would benefit from their opponent’s demise rising to the Hawks’ defense here, even as the sanctions are way over the top.

Maybe Robison will have a change of heart and trim the fine or the number of forfeited draft picks, or allow Johnston back for the playoffs. I don’t see it happening from a guy who won’t even answer legitimate media questions on the subject.

And by the way, the Hawks will not only be in the playoffs, they’ll be the favorite to win the WHL championship and represent the league in the Memorial Cup. At 41-7-1-2, they own the league’s best record. Since Johnston was banished, assistant coach Travis Green has guided them to a 21-3-0-2 mark.

The players I’ve talked to say they have a chip on their shoulder about the league’s treatment of their coach and their team, just a little added motivation in their drive to make it to major junior hockey’s pinnacle.

The Hawks have engaged in preliminary talks with counsel concerning possible legal action against the WHL. They want to avoid that if at all possible. They don’t want to damage the league or their relationship with clubs they’ll have to go to battle against in the future.

If only they got that kind of respect back from Robison and the league itself.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers



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