Drinnan: Cheaters don't prosper in WHL

Gregg Drinnan / Kamloops Daily News
December 3, 2012 01:00 AM

You have to think the WHL is feeling more than a bit gobsmacked today.

It apparently thought it could whack one of its partners, in this case the Portland Winterhawks, to the tune of $200,000, a bunch of draft picks and a suspension to its general manager/head coach, then pull the covers back over its head and no one would notice.

Except that the NHL is locked out, which means there are a whole lot of media types with nothing but time on their hands.

So by the time WHL commissioner Ron Robison embarked on his Damage Control Tour on Friday, things were rather messy.

By then, the likes of Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada fame, Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province, the Rogers Sportsnet troika of Daren Millard, Doug McLean and Scott Morrison, Bob McCown and Damien Cox of The Fan, a Toronto radio station, and who knows who else were lobbing hand grenades in the WHL's direction.

They and a whole lot of other folks, some of whom normally would need a GPS to find the WHL, wanted to know what had happened to draw those kinds of sanctions.

Hey, the fine is one thing - it's pocket change to Bill Gallacher, the Winterhawks' billionaire owner - but the Winterhawks lost Mike Johnston, their GM/head coach, through the end of the Memorial Cup, were barred from the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and had their first-round selections through the 2017 draft taken away.

And people were wanting to know: Why?

Robison informed members of his board of governors - the people for whom he works - of the sanctions a week ago. At that time, he also placed everyone in the league under a gag order.

That means no one is allowed to speak, at least not on the record.

But it now is apparent that the Winterhawks were cheating, although they are claiming a different interpretation of some rules that 21 other teams are saying they understand quite well. It's worth pointing out that Johnston is a member of the WHL's rules committee.

But this was about more than the breaking of some rules.

It was Friedman, an infrequent observer of the WHL, who began his essay with this:

"One thing I've learned about the Portland Winterhawks - the rest of the WHL hates them."

Here is a journalist who has had, to say the least, limited exposure to the WHL and he was able to discern that with a few phone calls.

It is safe to say that over the last five or six years, the Winterhawks have morphed into the most-despised team in the WHL. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Winterhawks have somehow managed to become the most-disliked organization in WHL history.

And that was before the disciplinary measures were revealed on Wednesday.

It began with the hiring of Garry Davidson as director of player personnel and continued when Bob Strumm surfaced on the fringes of the organization.

Davidson, now the general manager of the Everett Silvertips, was disliked because he had for years been in the BCHL where he had success recruiting against the WHL. Strumm, who went from the WHL office to work with the Regina Pats and Spokane Chiefs, spent a number of years as a pro scout with the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. He now is employed by Gallacher but denies having anything to do with the management or coaching of the Winterhawks.

There also was the training camp episode in 2010 when the Winterhawks had Swiss forward Alessio Bertaggia skating with them despite not owning his rights. There obviously was subterfuge here, but if the WHL dealt with the situation it did it behind closed doors.

All of these things conspired to turn their partners against the Winterhawks.

So, in WHL circles, there were no tears shed outside of Portland when the sledgehammer fell on the Winterhawks.

But, unfortunately for the WHL, this mess isn't going to go away any time soon, not unless the NHL and NHLPA come up with a deal in a hurry.

The genie is out of the bottle.

The rumours of illegal payments began about the time that Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter joined the Winterhawks. There were more when forward Ryan Johansen left the BCHL for Portland. Defenceman Seth Jones' arrival was accompanied by more of the same.

The WHL was presented with an opportunity to audit Portland's books after being handed a contract amendment that wasn't on file in the league office. This gave the league the documentation necessary to begin a full investigation.

But the WHL's independent auditor didn't find any evidence pointing in the direction of illegal payoffs. There wasn't even any evidence of enhanced education deals.

Instead, the bulk of the Winterhawks violations involved airplane tickets for the parents of players. Whether the WHL likes it or not, there are people out there who wonder what's wrong with flying in parents to watch their own children play.

(Perhaps the time has come for each of the WHL's 22 teams to put a small percentage of ticket revenue into a communal pot that is to be used for parental flights.)

The Winterhawks also were disciplined for having given cell phones to team captains and for funding some offseason training sessions.

People are shaking their heads at the thought of WHL teams not being able to supply team captains with cell phones. People are trying to understand why teams aren't allowed to pay for offseason training.

People inside the WHL will tell you that it's all about trying to maintain a level playing field. In other words, they are trying to protect the teams that don't have the money to spend as do the Winterhawks and some others.

If that is the case, the WHL needs to spend some time enlightening people about some of its rules. For example, how is it that a team is able to purchase BlackBerry PlayBooks for each of its players as Christmas gifts if Portland isn't permitted to supply a cell phone to its team captains? According to one general manager, there isn't an expense cap on Christmas gifts.

If that is, indeed, the case, the WHL needs to explain such discrepancies, to lift the veil of secrecy. It doesn't need to open its books, it just needs to be honest and upfront when situations such as these arise.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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