As far as public relations battles go, this latest one in the Western Hockey League is rare. It pits the Portland Winterhawks against commissioner Ron Robison and the league itself.
There have been duelling press releases concerning Portland’s sanctions for violating rules regarding player benefits. For the usually staid WHL a member team publicly defying the league is unprecedented. It’s become an embarrassment.
The Winterhawks, apparently breaking a confidentiality agreement, disclosed the details of the rules the WHL punished them – mightily – for breaking.
The question is posed to the commissioner: The league can’t look too kindly on a member team spilling beans, can it?
There is an uncomfortable pause on the other end of the phone.
“No,” said Robison, curtly.
On Friday, the WHL commissioner was making the rounds – including both major Toronto sports radio stations – doing interviews to discuss the situation with Portland. He’s come under a great deal of scrutiny since the league announced on Wednesday that it was fining the Winterhawks $200,000, suspending head coach-GM Mike Johnston for the rest of the season and taking away nine potential draft picks.
The two-month investigation was started when another WHL club, who had acquired a Portland player via trade, brought the league a document outside of the standard contract which outlined at least one of the infractions.
The media junket was a far cry from Wednesday’s press release, which ended by saying there would be no further comment from the league. So why is Robison talking now?
“On the basis of the Portland Winterhawks’ comments which released details of the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, we had the view that, that document was going to remain confidential, and consequently we felt it was important to clarify our position based on the information that was released,” said Robison.
Those details, some 54 infractions involving 14 Winterhawks players, were for such heinous crimes as paying for the team captain’s cell phone, paying for family flights to visit Portland and for summer training sessions. To make matters worse, Portland released another statement agreeing with the WHL’s accounting, but the team noted the league chose to count every flight, every phone and every workout as a single offence.
If Portland’s intent was to make the league look petty, they succeeded.
When asked whether the Winterhawks would be fined for speaking out of turn, the commissioner said he was reviewing the situation. The betting money should be placed on a hefty fine. For billionaire owner Bill Gallacher, who purchased the team in 2008, the price might be worth it.
For Robison, though, the issue isn’t about phones or flights – it’s about the continued disregard for the rules that govern his league. Rules that, according to the league, the Winterhawks knew they were breaking.
“It wasn’t the nature of the violations or the severity of the violations,” said Robison. “It was the frequency and systemic nature of the violations of an extended period and the lack of disclosure of the benefits being offered to players.”
Perhaps this whole public airing of laundry could have been avoided if the league had laid out its arguments and shown a little more transparency in the first place?
According to Robison, there is no formal appeal process through the league, though he said he believes the Winterhawks will be requesting a meeting with the WHL board of governors to review the situation.
“It’s the commissioner’s responsibility to rule,” said Robison. “But, ultimately, the WHL governors can review those decisions.”
Robison said the idea behind the punishment is to provide all WHL teams with as level a playing field as possible – even when you have community-owned teams in small markets going up against big cities with moneyed owners. He said that the current success of the Prince Albert Raiders – a community owned franchise – shows that the league’s business model is working without further need for revenue sharing outside of marquee events.
“Our focus is on making sure we preserve our current business model to allow clubs in all of our markets to operate,” said Robison.
In the meantime, head coach-general manager Johnston will remain in-operational. The former NHL coach will have to settle for watching his Winterhawks on television. He is barred from any dealings involving his club and is prohibited from setting foot inside any Western Hockey League rink.
During his tenure in Portland, Johnston has turned the franchise from pretender to contender. In the two years prior to his arrival in Portland, the team won a total of 28 games. In his first two seasons with the club, they won 63 games and have since been to two WHL championship finals. There are some who feel the loss of nine draft picks – including four in the first round – could devastate the franchise’s future.
“Any time you have sanctions that are this substantial, it’s going to have an impact on a team,” said Robison. “It would have a devastating impact on – or certainly a significant impact on a team regardless of the market that they’re in. We hope that the Portland Winterhawks will be in a position to recover and move forward.
“Hopefully, all of us can learn from this experience.”