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Blanchette: Ex-Chief ringleader of Hawks’ jailbreak

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The beauty of administrative justice in sports?

Investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury – they’re all the same person. Really cuts down on overhead.

Of course, it makes things a little dicey when explaining things out loud, as when the Western Hockey League gave the Portland Winterhawks life plus 99 years for assorted “player benefit violations” a couple months ago.

But that, too, has a simple solution: don’t explain.

The funny thing about those noogies, however. The WHL took a bigger hit in the court of public opinion – more of a small-claims court, really, where junior hockey is concerned – than did the perps.

For the moment, anyway.

Now, yes, the Winterhawks have dropped their last four outings, two of them by those carnival-midway shootouts, including Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Spokane Chiefs. This death spiral has actually brought Kelowna into play for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference – but only by winning 12 of its last 13.

“We’ve been flat for a little while,” admitted coach Travis Green. “To be honest, we’ve been flat for the better part of two to three weeks.”

It’s the flat time of year for every team – the season already four months old, the playoffs two months away, the  elite players making their way back from international events, the injuries, the bus rides, the blahs. For the Winterhawks, there’s been something else: the inevitable plunge from whatever rancorous adrenaline surge they had when coach-general manager Mike Johnston was exiled to limbo by a little Western justice.

Leaving Travis Green, more than two decades removed from being the most popular Chief on skates, to hold things together.

The WHL landed on the Winterhawks for fudging its rules as to what and what may not be provided to players and families. The penalties amounted to a four-year misconduct: no first-round draft picks until 2018, on top of a complete wipe of the first five rounds of 2013, a $200,000 fine and Johnston’s season-long banishment. In admirable display of chutzpah, commissioner Ron Robison wanted the club to take its beheading and order up no-comments all around for the media.

Nothing to see here.

Instead, the Winterhawks decried the severity of the penalties and suggested more transparency from a league that has never managed to reach opaque. The WHL huffed in response that there had been 54 infractions over five years, including providing flights to parents, cell phones to captains and summer training programs.

The violations were real. The sanctions seemed like a lethal injection for jaywalking, suggesting murkier motives. The upshot is that the league got beat up in print considerably worse than the hockey club.

This is not Green’s fight at the moment.

He has a team that’s reached the WHL finals the past two years that, in the legacy accorded all interim coaches, he’s not supposed to screw up.

“I’ll be honest – the first couple of games, I was obviously nervous,” he said, “as anyone put into that position would be. It’s not the way you want to get a job, or be put into that role.”

“I think (not screwing it up) was a little of it. You don’t want the team to crumble because you’re behind the bench. And just the fact that I’m doing a different role – two roles now. Hey, I’m still nervous every game – if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you. But it’s a different nervousness. I just really wanted the team to respond.”

The Winterhawks went 17-1 after Green took over. Consider that a response.

Unappealing as the circumstances of this chance were, it’s a well-earned progression for Green, who after a long and distinguished pro career opted for a modest assistant’s job in juniors to staying in the NHL or the minors, for a fairly simple reason.

He wanted to learn how to teach.

“That’s the good thing about Mike,” said Green, whose Winterhawks go at it against Spokane for a third straight time tonight at the Arena. “He gave me a lot of responsibility from the moment I came in. It was sink or swim.

“And he’s such a good teacher, not just of players, but coaches. Organization, practice, structure, leading a team meeting. He’s taught me everything I know as far as how to be a coach.”

And the players?

“They miss Mike,” Green acknowledged. “But the culture and leadership he developed has made it possible for our team to move forward and play at a high level. That’s the reason the team wasn’t effected much.”

Which is maybe the fairest part of the WHL’s justice. Robison didn’t take away the players’ chance to play for something meaningful this season, a lesson the NCAA might learn in its awkward stabs at doing the right thing.

Then again, that might mean he has to hand a trophy to the Winterhawks at season’s end. Speaking of awkward.