The long, bitter and ongoing feud between the Canadian Hockey League and NCAA hockey took an interesting twist when the Kitchener Rangers announced they had made good on a previous threat to sue The Michigan Daily.
According to Kitchener’s chief operating officer Steve Bienkowski, the Ontario Hockey League team has filed a statement of claim in a Kitchener, Ont., court against The Daily – the University of Michigan’s student newspaper – and to reporter Matt Slovin. The issued claim is expected to be served on Wednesday morning.
The lawsuit stems from a report the newspaper published last Tuesday, which quoted an anonymous OHL source, who alleged the Rangers had offered standout defenceman Jacob Trouba, a Wolverines commit, $200,000 in lieu of an education package to play for Kitchener this season. Such a payment would contravene the OHL’s rules in regards to impermissible benefits.
Ryder Gilliland, the lawyer representing the Rangers in their suit, said the team is seeking $1 million in damages – $500,000 in general damages and another $500,000 in punitive damages. Once the official claim is processed, the newspaper and Slovin have 40 days in which to defend that claim because they are located in the United States.
“We’re actually not making any comment at this time,” said Jacob Axelrad, the editor-in-chief of The Daily.
The report, which appeared on the newspaper’s website gained traction on both sides of the border both in print and on the Internet, a fact that Gilliland said played into their suit.
“This story is all over the Internet,” said Gilliland. “It’s a very serious allegation and that’s why the Kitchener Rangers are taking action.”
The Trouba family has since come out publicly to deny the report through the University of Michigan.
“There is absolutely no truth or merit to the recent media reports that the Kitchener Rangers have offered Jacob any remuneration,” said the statement in part.
The Kitchener Rangers are community-owned team that has an external accounting firm audit their financial statements each year. Those statements are distributed to their season ticket holders at their annual general meeting.
“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, last week.
Gilliland said he sent The Michigan Daily a libel notice on behalf of the Rangers on July 3, a day after the story was first published, asking for the story to be removed and a retraction to be published. When that didn’t happen, the Rangers pushed forward with their lawsuit.
Also at issue for the Rangers is the fact that the report of payment was based on an anonymous source, someone allegedly within the OHL.
"When you're dealing with sources one thing you have to be very careful about is relying on a source that has a bone to pick," said Gilliland. "The Kitchener Rangers are very concerned - they don't know who the source is - they're concerned that... this was a source that was deliberately trying to cause harm to the Kitchener Rangers. Again, we don't know if that's the case, but that's a very real concern."
This isn’t the first time allegations of this nature have been leveled at the Rangers or the OHL. In March of 2009, both the Rangers and Windsor Spitfires threatened to sue Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson when he alleged that Kitchener had offered to pay $500,000 to the family of defenceman Cam Fowler to play in the OHL. Fowler later went on to play for the Spitfires and his father, Perry Fowler, denied the report that Kitchener had made such an offer.
Last summer it was Paul Kelly, the then-head of College Hockey Inc., an arm of NCAA hockey, who threw out a figure of $300,000 during an interview in the Boston Globe as a sum allegedly shelled out to players in order to play in the CHL.
None of the claims against CHL teams paying players “under the table” have ever been proven.
CHL president and OHL commissioner Dave Branch said he has been in touch with the Rangers since the Daily story was published and said these kinds of allegations damage the reputation of his league.
“It’s disturbing,” said Branch in a phone interview. “We hope that we can take the necessary steps moving forward that will preclude such proclamations that have no substance, no basis.”
In 2010, the OHL hired retired OPP officer Ken Miller as the league’s enforcement officer to investigate claims made against teams breaking the rules. According to Branch, Miller has not been involved in this case to date.
“This just came to our attention last week,” said Branch. “We have not taken any steps, at this point, to engage our enforcement program into the process.”