Nothing says summer quite like the ongoing bitter feud between the NCAA and Canadian Hockey League.
If the latest firestorm over defenceman Jacob Trouba is any indication, it’s going to be a scorcher.
On Monday night a report in The Michigan Daily – the University of Michigan’s student newspaper – suggested that Trouba could potentially forgo his commitment to the Wolverines to play for the Kitchener Rangers who, according to unnamed sources, had offered $200,000 in place of an education package.
Such a payment would contravene the Ontario Hockey League’s rules in regards to impermissible benefits.
Steve Bienkowski, the Rangers’ chief operating officer, flatly denied the report and any kind of payment offered to the Trouba family. In addition, Bienkowski said the team has retained a lawyer and will purse the matter legally.
“We’re going to look at every legal remedy we have against the newspaper, the reporter and these so-called unnamed sources in the OHL who need to be held accountable for basically saying lies against our organization,” said Bienkowski in a phone interview from Halifax.
Unlike most OHL teams, the Rangers are community-owned and not a privately held company. As such, an external accounting firm audits their financial statements and those accounts are presented to season-ticket holders each year.
“The reality is there’s nowhere to hide the kind of money people are accusing us of paying,” said Bienkowski, who is a chartered accountant himself.
“But it is what it is, we’ve been targeted before and I’m sure we’ll be targeted in the future.”
This is not the first time an OHL team – or the Rangers – have been accused of paying players large sums of money to play for them. Last summer Paul Kelly, the then-executive director of College Hockey Inc., an arm of NCAA hockey, accused teams of paying players though no proof was ever produced.
“As much as the CHL denies it, there are still instances where money is being paid to the family to lure kids away and de-commit from colleges,” Kelly told the Boston Globe. “It’s off the books, under the table, whatever you want to call it. If your dad is a fisherman, an out-of-work machinist, or a farmer, and a CHL program comes along and offers you $300,000 in cash, it’s tough for these families not to accept that type of proposal.”
On Tuesday afternoon, as the report continued to gather steam, the Trouba family issued a statement via University of Michigan spokesperson Rob Tillotson.
“There is absolutely no truth or merit to the recent media reports that the Kitchener Rangers have offered Jacob any remuneration,” said the release. “We have the utmost respect for the Kitchener Rangers and those that choose the CHL as an option, but Jacob will be attending the University of Michigan next fall as a student athlete.”
During last summer’s NCAA exodus, Trouba spoke to Yahoo! Sports at great length about the importance of keeping his word. He was adamant that he would take his time in making his final decision between the OHL and the NCAA because he didn’t want to be seen as someone who broke his promise.
"It's important because people have to trust you and what you say," said Trouba during the interview last August. "If you keep backing out of decisions – and all that, going back on your word – then you're just going to get that reputation."
From the looks of things, Trouba is still intent on being a man of his word. The only wrench in his plan to attend Michigan this fall is if the Winnipeg Jets – who drafted Trouba ninth overall last month – decided to sign him. Signing a pro contract would automatically terminate his NCAA eligibility.
At the draft, however, the 18-year-old told reporters he made his intentions to the Jets clear and that they told him they’d abide by his wishes.
"(The Jets) expect that, and I'm glad they do,” he told the Detroit Free Press of his decision to play college hockey. “I made it clear that's where I was going. I wanted them to know that picking me."
Last week, defenceman Connor Carrick decided to forgo his commitment to the University of Michigan and join the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, adding to the angry discourse between fans of the CHL and NCAA. The fifth-round pick of the Washington Capitals intends to continue his studies at the University of Michigan while playing for the Whalers.
“I think they’re a little stung over Connor Carrick leaving and now they’re a little nervous over Jacob Trouba,” said Plymouth Whalers GM Mike Vellucci. “(The $200,000 payment) is not believable though.
“It’s just people that are scorned or people that want to make up an excuse why a player left. In our case Carrick came to us. We had his (OHL) rights, and he and his dad approached me to possibly play in Plymouth. It was the kid’s decision – there was no monetary (incentive) from us whatsoever. He wants to go to school, so he’ll continue to go to school and we’ll pay for it and he’ll play for us – it’s pretty cut and dried.”