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WHL Commissioner Ron Robison refuses to explain unprecedented penalties to Winterhawks

Taking in WHL commissioner Ron Robison's response Friday night to reporters' questions about the ruthless sanctions imposed on the Winterhawks early this season brought to mind the famous line of distempered tennis legend John McEnroe:

"You can't be serious!"

The commissioner's annual press conference prior to the opener of the WHL finals was the Portland media's first crack at Robison since he laid down by far the stiffest penalties in the league's 47-year history back in November.

To his credit, I guess, Robison accepted each and every query, virtually all in reference to the sanctions.

Didn't really answer hardly a one.

His lips moved, but I kept hearing programmed sound bites that never took care of the multitude of mysteries that remain unanswered in the Great Scalping of the Hawks.

Remember, Portland was fined $200,000, general manager/coach Mike Johnston was suspended for the rest of the season and the club was relieved of nine future draft picks -- the first five this year, the No. 1 selection in each of the next four seasons -- for player-benefit violations.

Most of them were for paying for flights for family members to and from Portland. There were some illegal payments for offseason training sessions. Portland was also docked for paying for a cell phone of its team captain for three straight years.

These are infractions that deserve to be penalized. I could see a $20,000 fine (which, even at that, would be four times the highest previous fine in league history), a five-game suspension for Johnston and loss of a first-round pick.

Instead, the Hawks sustained as close to the death penalty as a major junior hockey club can get.

Asked first about the extent of the penalties, Robison began with this:

"I'm hoping we don't have to get into a lot of details. We've indicated that matter is really internal. The regulations are very clear on what the sanctions are for violations of player benefits. The violations were extensive. The sanctions were extensive as a result. In the WHL, we want to maintain a level playing field. We want to make sure all franchises have equal access to the talent pool. We want to protect our business model. All that was taken into account."

There's so much to attack there. Let's begin with, what do you mean, you hope you don't have to get into details? At some point, isn't transparency the best policy?

It's internal? When you levy penalties so harsh there is nothing even close in precedent in WHL history, shouldn't there be some extended explanation? What do you have to hide?

The regulations are absolutely not clear. I looked through the WHL rulebook, which prohibits teams from paying for flights for family members during a team's annual "Parents Weekend." There is nothing, however, that specifically addresses any other time of year.

The Hawks' contention was, "We didn't know flying in family members at other times wasn't legal." The league's contention was, "You should have known. It was understood by everyone in the league."

When asked a second time about the specific rules violations, Robison answered, "The regulations are internal. The information has been made very clear. There were violations. They're written down in the regulations, absolutely. The information was provided to the club, but for internal purposes only."

Wait a minute. They are written into the regulations, but kept secret from the general public? For what reason? It's like NBA Commissioner David Stern saying the Trail Blazers broke a rule for tampering with a player, and it's in the rulebook, but we're not going to let the public see it. You just have to take our word for it. Robison's stipulation is not only nonsensical, but untrue.

What became clear during Robison's remarks was a contempt for what the league feels is dishonesty on the Winterhawks' part during the initial investigation. That, Robison said, led to more serious sanctions.

"It was the lack of disclosure that was forthcoming from the franchise when questioned previously and a lot of other factors … including the number of violations overall," Robison said. "What was the issue initially is there was a separate agreement entered in with another player, unknown by the league, and the club did not provide full disclosure initially on that agreement."

Robison's reference, evidently, is to Seth Swenson, who after being traded in January 2012 to Seattle, revealed an agreement to fly in family members by the Winterhawks. Hawks management contends they didn't know such a deal was illegal. They also believe they were totally upfront as the organization underwent the most thorough independent audit in league history.

Robison conceded the Hawks disputed the WHL's interpretation of the rules.

"But ultimately, the league determines what those rules are, and they were broken in our minds," he said. "That's provided internally, and everyone in the Western Hockey League is satisfied with that."

I can offer one team that isn't.

Asked why he ducked interview requests from Portland media after the ruling, Robison said, "We issued two separate releases on the matter. That was the fairest way to do it. We didn't feel there was any need for any further comment."

I'll let you decide if Robison's reasoning has merit.

The most egregious part of the WHL sanctions is that there is -- I kid you not -- no appeals process. Unless they were willing to go to court, the Hawks pretty much had to like or lump it.

"In our league, we feel any issue of concern to a franchise can be raised with the Board of Governors," Robison said. "The matter was discussed at the February meeting. (Portland owner) Bill Gallacher and (president) Doug Piper have every right to bring that up again at any Board of Governors meeting."

Each WHL club has a representative -- either an owner or team president -- on the Board of Governors. Any appeal of a league sanction should not go there but to an independent arbiter, who has no vested interest in any team.

Robison did little Friday night to dispel the notion that the league engaged in a witch hunt of a franchise that rose from the dregs before Gallacher took over in 2008 to the top of the food chain in four short years.

The investigation found infractions, but nothing major.

The sanctions sure were, though.

And we really don't know any more about them after Robison's little talk with the Fourth Estate than we did back in November, when the wrath of Robison rained down on our local hockey club.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers



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