Portland Winterhawks general manager and head coach Mike Johnston is not able to speak for himself as a result of a season-long suspension handed down last week by Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison.
But the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club is sending a resounding message of support for Johnston in the form of red T-shirts with Johnston's likeness and the message "Free Mike J."
At the two home games since the sanctions were announced on Nov. 28, the booster club sold about 700 of the shirts — priced at $10 — according to Winterhawks Booster Club president Stuart Kemp.
Kemp, who lives in Vancouver, said the idea — and the money to have the T-shirts made — came from an anonymous supporter. Any profit from the shirt sales will be donated to the Winterhawks education fund, Kemp said.
"And there was really no publicity about them," Kemp said.
There has been plenty of publicity for the plight of the Winterhawks and their coach. The WHL — citing multiple rules violations — suspended Johnston through the end of the 2013 postseason, took away nine bantam draft picks and fined the team $200,000. The league did not announce what the violations were, but the Winterhawks did, listing mostly flights for players' parents to visit Portland during the season.
Kemp said he was "floored" when he heard about the penalties. He, like the Winterhawks, believes the sanctions are excessive since the audit that led to the penalties found no recruiting violations or payments to players.
Particularly bothersome to Kemp is the treatment of Johnston. Not only does the suspension hurt Johnston's reputation, but it hurts players who came to the WHL to develop as hockey players and people, Kemp said.
"What is most disappointing is that the players don't have a coach who is a mentor and has been key to the development of these players," Kemp said. "That to me is the most sad part of all this."
The booster club is an independent non-profit organization not affiliated with the team. The Winterhawks allow the booster club to set up a table on the concourse at home games, which is where fans — including Portland mayor Sam Adams — have purchased the "Free Mike J" shirts. The shirts will be available at today's 7 p.m. home game against Tri-City in the Rose Garden.
Kemp, a native of Vancouver, B.C., has been a member of the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club since 2003 when he moved to Vancouver, Wash., and married his wife, Cathy. Stuart Kemp is in his fifth season as the booster club president. He said the club has more than 500 members this season, its high number in at least a decade.
Johnston is not allowed to attend games or practices and is not supposed to speak to media as a result of his suspension. So Johnston's reaction to the shirts is a mystery.
Acting head coach Travis Green said he has not yet had an opportunity to buy one of the shirts. He said that he is still in daily contact with Johnston, and that the team is carrying on the systems that Johnston has built since arriving in 2008.
"We're just taking what we learned from Mike and moving forward," Green said. "Mike's been such a good mentor to us (coaches). He's not here with us every day, but he's here with us in many different ways."
Did you know?
• The Portland Winterhawks Booster Club is a non-profit fan organization that supports the team, its players, and area charities through a variety of projects.
• Annual membership costs $15 for individuals, $20 for couples and $25 for a family of four. Benefits include discounts on booster club bus trips to away games, which happen occasionally during the season.
• The "Free Mike J" T-shirts will be on sale at home games for $10 as long as there is demand, according to booster club president Stuart Kemp.