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WHL boss Robison says league levied 'fair' penalties on Winterhawks

The Western Hockey League Board of Governors will meet by conference call Tuesday morning and is open to hearing an unofficial appeal of league sanctions against the Portland Winterhawks.

Commissioner Ron Robison said Friday that the WHL has no formal appeal process. But the Winterhawks "are welcome to meet with the Board of Governors (Tuesday) to discuss the matter," he said.

Robison — who has not responded to phone calls from the Portland Tribune — gave an interview Friday to a Toronto radio station, Sportsnet 950.

The WHL levied unprecedented penalties Wednesday on the Winterhawks, taking away numerous draft picks over the next five years, suspending coach-general manager Mike Johnston for the rest of the season and issuing the club a $200,000 fine.

"Our view was fair and responsible," Robison said. "Hopefully, just like any suspension or any sanction, we all learn from it and are better for it."

The Winterhawks have acknowledged what the WHL numbered as 54 incidents over recent seasons that were the basis of the league's penalties. Most of the cases involved airline flights to Portland for parents of Hawk players.

"Flights are permitted for recruiting, for bringing the families in initially, but no subsequent travel" is allowed under WHL rules, Robison said.

With the Winterhawks, Robison said, "there was a question as to whether the regulations were clear and whether these were actual violations, but if there is an interpretation … it's incumbent on the team to contact our league office and clarify that, and that was not done.

"The clubs are responsible to ensure that they understand the regulations … the concern is not centered around the nature of the violation as much as it is the frequency and the lack of disclosure by the club, and specifically by the general manager in this case.

"Portland subsequently agreed that, yes, these are violations, and they were recorded as such."

Robison said the WHL began investigating the Winterhawks after another team "provided us with documentation … of an agreement Portland had entered into with a player" who had been traded from Portland to that team.

A major issue, Robison said, was keeping a "level playing field" in the WHL, which has teams in different market sizes.

"We have to be very diligent in making sure the playing field is at all times equal," he said.

Robison said no other WHL teams are under investigation for possible rules violations.

He said Johnston may have "no direct involvement" with the Winterhawks until after the Memorial Cup and cannot attend any WHL games. Johnston can continue to receive his salary from the Hawks.