PORTLAND — The sanctions handed down Wednesday by the Western Hockey League might have significant long-term impacts for the Portland Winterhawks.
But the current players and the interim head coach see no reason for the current team to stray from its goal of winning a league championship.
“That’s what you come to play junior hockey for. You come to win the WHL and the Memorial Cup,” Winterhawks captain Troy Rutkowski said. “So our goals haven’t changed.”
Travis Green, who was named interim head coach after the league on Wednesday suspended Mike Johnston for the remainder of this season, said the expectations won’t change.
“Our expectations are high here. It’s not about making the playoffs. It’s not about winning a round in the playoffs. It’s about winning the WHL championship,” Green said.
The Winterhawks have come close to that prize two years running. They currently have the best record in the WHL at 20-4-1.
Starting with today’s game at the Rose Garden against Seattle, the Winterhawks will move forward without Johnston’s guidance on the bench. The team was also fined $200,000 and stripped of nine picks in upcoming bantam drafts.
Late Thursday, the WHL sent out a second statement in an attempt to clarify how the Winterhawks violated league rules. Thursday’s WHL statement said an independent investigation conducted by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found 54 violations involving 14 players over the past five seasons.
“We believe the sanctions are not excessive given the repeated and systemic nature of the violations,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said in the league’s statement “The independent investigation discovered an unprecedented number of violations. It is the responsibility of each WHL club and general manager to be fully aware of the WHL regulations and to be in compliance at all times.
“These sanctions are necessary in order to protect the overall welfare and integrity of our league and to preserve a level playing field for all of our member clubs and our players,” Robison said.
On Wednesday, it was the Winterhawks — not the league — who released information detailing the following violations:
• 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.
On Thursday, after the WHL issued its statement clarifying the reason for the harsh penalties, the Winterhawks issued their own statement emphasizing that there were no violations beyond those the team announced.
“The WHL is counting each flight, training session and phone as an individual infraction, adding up to 54,” the Winterhawks statement said. “The league’s findings are consistent with the team’s statement (Wednesday), and the Winterhawks are encouraging more transparency in this process.”
As of Thursday afternoon, the Winterhawks were uncertain about the specifics of Johnston’s suspension.
After Thursday’s practice at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Green and Rutkowski were the only team representatives made available for media interviews.
“Our gut reaction is (we’re) very surprised, very shocked, and obviously disappointed,” Green said.
Green, who played 14 seasons in the National Hockey League, was hired along with Johnston in October of 2008 when Bill Gallacher bought the Winterhawks. Portland had posted the worst record in the WHL two years in a row before Johnston and Green arrived.
“In our minds, Mike’s the best coach in the league,” Green said. “He’s been a great mentor for me. He’s established a culture here within our (locker) room where the leadership group is as good as I’ve seen since we’ve been here. So we’ll lean on our leaders.”
Rutkowski, in his fifth season in Portland, said he doesn’t expect much will change on the ice.
“Mike and Travis work as a team so all the same stuff is going to be in place,” Rutkowski said. “I don’t see very much changing there.”
Describing Green’s coaching style, Rutkowski said, “He’s an in-your-face guy. But he can be calm, too. He’s going to do a good job. It shouldn’t impact us too much.”
Green said that Kyle Gustafson, the assistant coach charged with statistical and video analysis, will join him on the bench. Gustafson has spent most of his time during games charting play from upstairs.
One thing Green said won’t change is his relationship with Johnston.
“Mike and I have talked every day for probably the last four years. I don’t see that changing right now,” Green said.
“Mike and I our great friends,” Green added. “He’s a great mentor, and I’ll be in some kind of contact with him some way or another.”