WHL suspends Portland coach for the season, fines team

CALGARY, Alberta — The Western Hockey League suspended Portland Winterhawks coach and general manager Mike Johnston for the rest of the season, fined the team $200,000 and took away several draft picks Wednesday because of player-benefit violations over the past four seasons.

The WHL said the Winterhawks will be excluded from the first five rounds of the 2013 WHL bantam draft and will forfeit their first-round selections in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Should the first-round selection in 2014 not be available due to a conditional trade, Portland will surrender its second- and third-round picks.

“All WHL clubs understand they are required to fully comply and respect our league regulations or they will face significant consequences,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said. “WHL clubs are required to fully disclose all commitments they make to a player in the WHL Standard Player Agreement. Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL.

“It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL Regulations as previous media reports indicated.”

The Winterhawks issued a statement with a summary of the league’s findings, saying the team was found to have committed the following violations:

— A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program.

— Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland.

— Twice in the past five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen.

— The Winterhawks provided a cellphone for their team captain for a period of three seasons.

The WHL’s audit found no violations involving monetary payments made to players, their families or agents, or any violations related to the league’s educational packages, the team said.

“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” Johnston said. “We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions. We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed.

“Despite our objections, the league has made its decision and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”

Assistant general manager and assistant coach Travis Green will assume Johnston’s duties on an interim basis. Portland is 20-4-1 this season and leads the U.S. Division with 41 points. The Winterhawks are one point behind the WHL-leading Kamloops Blazers in the overall standings.

The disciplinary action came about two months after the Ontario Hockey League sanctioned the Windsor Spitfires for recruitment violations. In that case, the Spitfires were fined $250,000 and lost first-round draft picks in 2013 and 2016 as well as second-round selections in 2015 and 2017.

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