The Portland Winterhawks have been severely punished by the Western Hockey League for violating league rules — including suspending head coach and general manager Mike Johnston for the remainder of the 2012-13 season, including the playoffs.
Citing a series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons, WHL Commissioner Ron Robison has also stripped the Winterhawks of a number of bantam draft picks, including their first-round picks in the for the next five years.
The team was also fined $200,000.
The Winterhawks announced that Travis Green, the team’s assistant general manager and assistant coach, will take over the GM and coaching roles for the rest of this season.
In annoucing the penalties on Wednesday, the league did not disclose the specific violations.
But the Winterhawks did, and Johnston expressed surprise over the severity of the punishment.
Here are the violations for which the Winterhawks said they are being punished:
• A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program.
• Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights two to four times each season based on financial need and their distance from Portland.
• Twice in the last five years, the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen.
• The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for their team captain for a period of three seasons.
“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” Johnston said in a statement released by the Winterhawks.
“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,” Johnston said. “We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”
In the league’s statement announcing the penalties, Robison did not mention the specific violations.
“All WHL clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our league regulations or they will face significant consequences,” Robison said. “WHL clubs are required to fully disclose all commitments they make to a player in the WHL Standard Player Agreement. Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL.”
Robison, who said the league yould make no further comment beyond the announcement, added:
“It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL regulations, as previous media reports indicated.”
Dean Millard of The Pipeline Show, a Canadian hockey radio show and blog, first reported on Nov. 13 that the Winterhawks were being investigated and might face significant sanctions.
Johnston was hired by Bill Gallacher when Gallacher bought the franchise early in the 2008-09 season. Johnston and Green, his top assistant, each signed four-year contract extensions in the summer of 2011 that keep them with the Winterhawks through the 2014-15 season.
Portland has reached the WHL championship series two years in a row, falling just short of the league title. The Winterhawks currently have a league-best record of 20 wins and five losses, one of them in overtime.
The specific draft picks taken away by the league are the first five rounds of the 2013 draft, and their first-round picks in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 WHL bantam drafts. The bantam draft is the way WHL teams acquire current 14-year-old players for future seasons. WHL players are eligible to play full time in the league between the ages of 16 and 20.