WHL commissioner tap-danced around answers to Winterhawk questions

WHL commissioner tap-danced around answers to Winterhawk questions
May 6, 2013, 8:00 am
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Dwight Takes on WHL Commish Regarding Winterhawks Sanctions

Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison finally met with the Portland media Friday night, about four months after levying most likely the heftiest sanctions in the history of junior hockey. Actually, the sanctions might be the most severe I can remember in all of sports outside of an NCAA death penalty.

I can't remember too many pro leagues fining a franchise $200,000, taking away draft picks for half a decade and suspending a general manager/coach for a season.

So you might imagine that when Robison finally took questions from media he's been ignoring for months (he showed up a good 10 minutes late for his own news conference, too, and wasted the first several minutes reading aloud the PR notes about the series), he was faced with some rather tough ones. And he didn't bring much to the table in the way of answers. You can find that news conference -- at least the good parts -- right here. But I wanted to mention a few things about the matter just one more time:

  • The Winterhawks have said from the start they were not aware of specific regulations against flying players' parents into Portland to watch their kids play. I believe them when they say that because as near as I've been able to determine, it's common practice in junior hockey. One NHL scout told me last week he'd been asking major-junior team operators all over Canada whether they pay for parents to fly in and watch their boys play. He said, "EVERY SINGLE ONE of them told me they commonly did it. It's something all teams have done."
  • Be that as it may, if there is a rule against it, the Winterhawks broke it. So I asked Robison for something I'd requested by voice mail with the league office previously -- a simple copy of the regulation. If there's a rule, show us the rule and just like that, there's no question here of culpability. But Robison refused to provide that. Why?
  • If there's a rule against helping parents come watch their sons play a couple of times a year, there shouldn't be. Junior hockey asks a lot from players and parents -- with kids as young as 16 leaving home for months to play hockey. Seems stupid to think parents shouldn't have a chance to watch them play, courtesy of the team that's been charging people money all season to watch their kid play.
  • Are other teams being monitored for violating this practice or was this just something done against one franchise that has gotten way too successful for some of the other franchises in the league to handle? I had a league official years ago tell me how much it rankled the Canadians who run the WHL when an American team has success. The hockey culture in Canada is all about the little Swift Currents, Medicine Hats and Moose Jaws providing players for the NHL. Portland and Seattle don't necessarily fit into that little fairy tale.
  • Robison also talked about the persistent rumor that no American city will ever again play host to the Memorial Cup. The stated reason always comes back to sponsorship issues, since the major sponsors are always Canadian companies. I think what also plays into the situation is when the Cup is contested in the U.S., U.S. teams have a better chance of winning it.
  • The Winterhawks last week were named the league's "Scholastic team of the year." They make sure their players get an education -- it's a big priority and part of the reason some parents want their kids to play here. Shouldn't winning that major award mitigate at least one piece of the sanctions against Portland? Is there no time off for good behavior? Is there no recognition at all that this franchise has transformed itself -- through new energetic ownership and great leadership from Mike Johnston and Doug Piper -- from the worst franchise in the league to arguably the best in a very short time?
  • Actually, of course not. In fact, I cannot imagine how much discomfort Portland's determined playoff run is causing the WHL. These penalties -- and Johnston's suspension, in particular -- were designed to derail this franchise. And that hasn't happened. I'm betting there's tremendous resentment about Portland's success and a lot of people in that league office pulling for Edmonton in the series.