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WHL lowers boom on Winterhawks

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mike Johnston, general manager and coach of the Portland Winterhawks, has been suspended for the rest of the season by the Western Hockey League as one of the penatlies for what the WHL called 'a series of player benefit violations.'The hottest team in the Western Hockey League has come under serious fire. The WHL on Wednesday levied unprecedented penalties on the Portland Winterhawks for what the league termed "a series of player benefit violations."

The WHL stripped the Hawks of its main source of top future talent — bantam draft picks. Portland must forfeit its first-round pick the next five years, through 2017, and won't be allowed to draft in the first five rounds in 2013 (and in the second and third rounds of 2014 if the team does not qualify for a first-round pick due to a conditional trade).

The league also suspended Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach, for the rest of this season, and fined the club $200,000.

The Winterhawks fired back, with Johnston saying in a press release that they are "exploring our options on how we will proceed" and contending that "the excessive nature of the sanctions … we don't feel … are in line with the scope of the violations."

The WHL said its investigation revealed "no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players" in Portland.

The WHL did not disclose specific violations, but the Winterhawks said they are being penalized for:

"•Â A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player's family and a summer training program

•Â Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland

•Â Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen

•Â The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons"

Added Johnston in his statement: "After fully cooperating with the league's investigation, we were extremely surprised. … We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents' weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players' parents, which were the majority of the infractions."

The Hawks, who have reached the WHL finals two years in a row under a major turnaround that began with the arrival of Johnston and owner Bill Gallacher of Calgary during the 2008-09 season, have the league's best record for 2012-13. They are 20-4-1-0 after 25 games in the 72-game regular season. Their next game is 7 p.m. Friday at the Rose Garden against the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Travis Green, the assistant GM/assistant coach who has been Johnston's right-hand man, is expected to take over on the bench.

"Despite our objections," Johnston said, "the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship."