|Alessio Bertaggia (No. 23) is shown during his appearance in a Portland Winterhawks' training camp scrimmage.|
The Portland Winterhawks had Swiss forward Alessio Bertaggia on the ice for at least one scrimmage during training camp late last month. He is an undrafted European player, who didn’t have his IIHF release.
The WHL looked into the situation and sources told me Friday night that the Winterhawks have been disciplined.
Reached via email, Richard Doerksen, the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, confirmed that is precisely what has happened.
“Portland has been disciplined for permitting an ineligible import player to participate in a training camp scrimmage,” Doerksen wrote. “The discipline will remain internal with the league.”
So what started as a bit of a fun thing, at least in terms of some fans and media, turned rather serious.
If you tuned in late, an unidentified player wearing No. 23 lit it up for Team Red in a scrimmage during the Winterhawks’ training camp. The player in question scored three goals and dominated play.
But the Winterhawks never identified the player; in fact, they denied knowing who the player was.
Graham Kendrick, the Winterhawks’ director of media and public relations: “We had a number of players fill out rosters for the scrimmage and players were switching jerseys to complete teams so I don’t have a record of who he was.”
Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ general manager/head coach: “I understand some people have been speculating that Rocco (Grimaldi) was in camp but I am sure you know that is not true. Also Graham informed me that certain local bloggers were also speculating that we were hiding players in camp. Under no circumstances did we have a player here who might be considering college and agreed to keep his name out of the team lists.
“We held a tournament with four teams over the four days and on Sunday I heard people wondering who scored particular goals. There were 60-plus goals scored in the eight games and, to be honest, I didn't keep track of who was scoring. The announcer did his best but there were situations where he didn't know who the player was because we switched jerseys and added local kids in for injuries.”
Johnston was correct in that Grimaldi, whose rights Portland acquired from the Vancouver Giants for a conditional first-round bantam draft pick in 2011, 2012 or 2013, wasn’t there.
Johnston also was correct in stating that the Winterhawks didn’t have anyone in camp who “might be considering college.” But it was rather disingenuous of him to expect folks to believe that he didn’t know who was on the ice.
Of course, perhaps no one with the Winterhawks expected Bertaggia to score three goals and dominate play the way he did.
Bertaggia is a 17-year-old forward from Lugano, Switzerland, who hasn’t been selected by any teams in the CHL import draft. He played for Switzerland at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament early in August. He would appear to be a world-class player.
(A couple of photos of him were posted here last week, but some folks apparently weren’t convinced those pictures were of Red No. 23. So, today, we bring you some more photos, with a big thank you to the picture taker.)
Yes, it is against the rules — not just the WHL rules, but the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation — to have a player on the ice with you who wasn’t selected in the CHL import draft.
In fact, there are circumstances where it is illegal to have a drafted import player on the ice with you.
“An import player can’t be on the ice without his release from the IIHF,” one WHL general manager explained. “I’ve had drafted import players in town and haven’t been able to put them on the ice until their release came through.”
Johnston couldn’t be reached for comment, and didn’t respond to an email request to talk about Bertaggia.
So . . . what do other WHL general managers think about what went on in Portland?
Well, before the WHL doled out its discipline, whatever that may have amounted to, I asked some of them what they felt should happen.
“The league should throw the book at them,” one GM said. “The team should lose at least one import spot for the season. It should be fined heavily. It should lose two spots off its 50-player list for one year.”
Another general manager offered this: “They should lose their Euro pick for three years. The should lose some bantam (draft) picks. They should lose some money.”
One GM also mentioned the possible insurance implications involved with having such a player on the ice with your team.
“What if that player was injured and you didn’t have a release for him?” he said. “Or what if he hit another player from behind and injured that player?
“I don’t want to think about what that all might involve.”
The bottom line, according to a GM, is this:
“We can’t put an American kid on the ice without having him registered through Hockey Canada. They can’t step on the ice. The league bends over backwards and processes it in one day because some days we have late additions. But to try and slide an (import) in . . .
“I don’t have a problem with them adding people but you can’t add Europeans. You can’t have Europeans on the ice. You get two and that’s it.”
The Winterhawks, of course, have two imports on their roster. Nino Niederreiter, who was taken fifth overall in the NHL draft, may not return from the camp of the New York Islanders, while Sven Bartschi was selected in the CHL's 2010 import draft. Both are Swiss forwards.
The Winterhawks, of course, were the talk of the junior hockey world last season.
Under new ownership, they went from 19 victories in 2008-09 to 44 last season. They regained their stature as one of the WHL’s premier teams. Not only that, they were an entertaining team to watch.
With that comes a real loss of friends. When you’re at the bottom, everyone loves you because you’re an easy two points and because you’re not perceived as a threat.
Get your ducks in order, have some success recruiting, have eight players selected in the NHL draft — yes, eight, including two first-rounders — and a total of 13 invited to NHL camps and now you’re a target.
Having an unauthorized import player on ice during training camp only exacerbates that situation.