VANCOUVER, Wash. – 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 and playoffs.
Citing a series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons, WHL commissioner Ron Robison also stripped the Winterhawks of a number of bantam draft picks, including their first-round picks in the next five years. The team has also been 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.
Green, of Castlegar, British Columbia, played for the Spokane Chiefs from 1986 until early in 1990, when he was traded to Medicine Hat.
At the time of his trade, Green was the Chiefs’ all-time leading scorer. The Chiefs named him as one of the top 25 players in franchise history in 2010.
Green played 14 seasons in the NHL, scoring 193 goals in stints with five teams.
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 (20-4-1-0) have a league-best winning percentage of .820 this season. Their 41 points are six better than Spokane in the U.S. Division.
Portland defeated the Chiefs 9-1 on Nov. 10 and will play again in Spokane on Dec. 18.
Chiefs GM Tim Speltz didn’t return a call seeking comment.
In announcing 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 per 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 cellphone 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.
Dean Millard of The Pipeline Show and Global Sports, a Canadian radio show and hockey blog, first reported on Nov. 13 that the Winterhawks were being investigated and might face significant sanctions.
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. In the WHL, players are eligible to play full time when they are ages 16 to 20.