The Western Hockey League announced severe sanctions today on the Portland Winterhawks. The league will not allow the club to participate in the first five rounds of the 2013 Bantam Draft and has stripped the team of first round selections in the 2014,2015,2016 and 2017 WHL Bantam Drafts. Furthermore the club has been fined $200,000 and head coach Mike Johnston has been suspended for the remainder of the 2012-2013 season and the upcoming post season.
This story was first reported on The Pipeline Show who on November 13thindicated they had information that the club was under investigation.
League commissioner Ron Robinson said in a statement today “All WHL Clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our League Regulations or they will face significant consequences. 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. 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.”
So what does this mean for Portland?
The most significant punishment handed out is the loss of the draft picks. The key to building and maintaining a successful club in the WHL is through the Bantam Draft. The Winterhawks are 20-4-1-0 right now and are the two time defending Western Conference Champions. Their roster is riddled with NHL level draft picks and prospects.
This roster was built largely through the Bantam Draft.
Not having any picks next year would be damaging enough but the additional loss of first round picks through the 2017 season is equally as damaging. If Portland does see a down swing due to these punishments they will be forfeiting the best talent in many drafts to come.
The Winterhawks were seen by many as the best team in the WHL this season and this announcement could come as a big distraction for the club. They will lose their head coach and general manager for the rest of the season and playoffs and that could make the difference in reaching the finals and not.
An argument could be made that Portland’s roster is deep enough that almost anyone could coach them to success but you can not underestimate the difference an experienced and good coach like Johnston can have on a team.
And what will become of Johnston’s reputation and legacy?
He was on his way to becoming a legend in the WHL. It wasn’t too long ago that the Winterhawks were mired at the bottom of the WHL. From 2006 to 2009 they missed the playoffs and only won a total of 47 games in those three years.
Johnston has been given a lot of credit for rebuilding the franchise into what was seen as the model franchise. A franchise that could draft and sign the top players year in and year out. Now that reputation is in question as it appears they did not do that on the up and up.
This will be a fascinating story to watch unfold.
The current roster is deep and talented and unless this is a huge distraction, the Winterhawks will still be a power in the WHL. The real effect of these sanctions will come down the road, as these players graduate, will Portland be able to maintain the dominant level it has enjoyed the past few years?