Sanctions will not tarnish Winterhawks’ season if they win the Memorial Cup

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Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of giving and appreciating the bounties accumulated over the past year. Less than a week after this gluttonous holiday, the Western Hockey League presented the Portland Winterhawks with a trip to the backyard deep fryer.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison announced on November 28 that the league suspended the Winterhawks for a series of violations of WHL regulations. Over the past four seasons Portland has been skating by without penalty, but now that they are the best team in the WHL the sanctions emerge, seemingly at a peculiar time.

The league found that Portland violated league rules when they signed a player contract in 2009, and provided flights for the players’ families as well as covering the cost of a summer training program. The findings also exposed that the Winterhawks provided flights 2-to-4 times per season for seven families based on financial need and distance from Portland. In addition, twice during this span the team paid for two players separately to participate in a one-week summer training regimen. The final violation found was that Portland provided a cell phone for its captain over a three-year span.

Although that’s a longer list than a Thanksgiving menu, none of those violations appear outlandish or exceedingly inappropriate. The rules are firm and must be followed by each team in the WHL without exception, but the penalties dished out seem extreme.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison has suspended the Winterhawks from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and the forfeiture of their first round selections in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 WHL Bantam Drafts. In addition to the devastating loss of draft picks, the WHL also announced that Portland has been fined $200,000 and the team’s general manager and head coach Mike Johnston has been suspended for the remainder of the 2012-13 season, including the 2013 WHL Playoffs.

That is far from a slap on the wrist for the league’s top team and a favorite to represent the WHL in the Memorial Cup. Considering the WHL did not find any violations involving monetary payments to players, families, or agents the penalties appear quite harsh. The WHL also found no violation related to the league’s educational policies.

So why are the penalties so severe? Many have pondered that question, but few have generated the slightest understanding. Interestingly, there weren’t any violations found in the acquisition of Seth Jones. Portland traded for the consensus number one overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft last April. One would think if there was any misdoing going on with the Winterhawks it would revolve around Seth Jones. However, no evidence suggests his involvement nor does it implicate his rookie teammates.

In addition to Jones, two other Portland players will receive first round attention come June. Nicolas Petan, and Oliver Bjorkstrand are two stellar rookies for the Winterhawks’ stacked squad. Derrick Pouliot, Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon, Taylor Leier, Brendan Leipsic, and Ty Rattie are all current players who have been drafted by an NHL team in prior drafts.

Long story short, this team is loaded with potential NHL talent and will make a strong push for the Memorial Cup. Assistant GM and assistant coach Travis Green has assumed Johnston’s duties on an interim basis. The resilient Winterhawks have not lost a beat since the sanctions. After dominating the league and finishing with the best record, Portland controlled its rival, the Everett Silvertips in the conference quarterfinals of the WHL Playoffs. The Winterhawks breezed through the conference semifinals, sweeping the Spokane Chiefs with ease.

Next, Portland will take on the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Conference finals. With an expected series win, the Winterhawks should face their most formidable opponent, the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL Finals. But, there is no question Portland is predicted to come out of the WHL and represent the league in the Memorial Cup.

The sanctions and penalties may cripple the Winterhawks for years to come, but this season is the culmination of terrific scouting and player development. It would be a shame to blemish a championship for a squad whose worst infraction was paying for poor families to come watch their kids play.

For all the turmoil and bad media attention these kids who range from 16-to-21 years old had to endure, they deserve some recognition for their on-ice production. This Winterhawks team is one of the best in franchise history and should be viewed that way when it’s all said and done.