Saturday, August 11, 2012

David Branch, the commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, has dropped a bomb on the Windsor Spitfires, one of his league’s highest-profile franchises.
And you can bet the shrapnel will be felt around the Canadian Hockey League for a long, long time.
In fact, that rustling noise you’re hearing right now is major junior hockey teams going through their closets as they check for skeletons.
Branch, who doubles as the president of the CHL, the umbrella under which the OHL, QMJHL and WHL operate, drilled the Spitfires with a fine of $400,000 and took away five of their draft picks after an investigation found them in violation of rules pertaining to the recruitment of players.
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Here is the OHL’s news release, unedited and in its entirety:
The Ontario Hockey League, (OHL), has levied fines totaling $400,000.00 against the Windsor Spitfires Hockey Club and taken away three 1st round draft selections and two 2nd round draft selections from the Spitfires.
“In 2009 the Board of Governors of the Ontario Hockey League developed the OHL ENFORCEMENT PROGRAM which is designed to address and attempt to eliminate violations of the RULES and impose appropriate penalties if violations occur. The enforcement process is an integral part of the process to ensure integrity and fair play among the MEMBER TEAMS. One of the fundamental principles of the enforcement process is to ensure that those MEMBER TEAMS that are abiding by the rules are not disadvantaged by their commitment to compliance”, stated OHL Commissioner David Branch.
“The League conducted two separate investigations led by our Director of Security and Enforcement, and in considering all the facts, I was persuaded that the Windsor Spitfires Hockey Club violated the League’s Player Benefit and Recruitment Rules and Policies. While the penalties may appear to be severe, the League and its Member Teams recognize for any such violations of our Recruitment / Benefit Rules and Policies, we must send a strong message to preserve the integrity of our League”, concluded Branch.
In addition to the fine, the Windsor Spitfires shall forfeit 1st round selections in the annual OHL Priority Selection in the years 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2nd round selections in the OHL Priority Selection Process for the years 2015 and 2017.”
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It is impossible to overstate the impact of this decision.
There have long been rumours of major junior teams using under-the-table temptations in their recruiting as they attempt to attract players from both sides of the border and keep them from taking the NCAA route, as well as paying untold amounts of money for import players.
The NCAA, and College Hockey, Inc. (CHI) have barked about this for a long time. But, until now, there has never been any proof.
Ironically, neither the NCAA nor CHI ever did come up with any evidence. Rather, the OHL has served itself up on a platter and there will be a lot of people south of the 49th parallel saying “I told you so!”
You also are free to wonder if this validates the story that appeared in the Michigan Daily a short time ago, the one pointing a finger at the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers for this same thing? The hockey team has since filed a lawsuit over the matter.
You have to wonder now, though, if that lawsuit might just disappear over the horizon in the next little while, although Branch has said the OHL enforcement officer didn’t find anything nefarious when he looked into the Kitchener situation.
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Sunaya Sapurji of Yahoo! Sports tweeted a short time after the OHL’s announcement: “Windsor Spitfires denying allegations: ‘We will pursue all avenues of appeal regarding the decision made by the Commissioner, David Branch.’ ”
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Sapurji later filed a story for Yahoo! Sports. That story is right here.
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Right here is a blog entry from Jim Parker of the Windsor Star.
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In the WHL, there have long been rumours about players/families receiving off-the-radar benefits as part of the recruitment process. I think the first time I heard anything like this was in 1997 when the Tri-City Americans, then owned by Ron Toigo, who now owns the Vancouver Giants, were pursuing F Scott Gomez. He eventually would join the Americans and play two seasons with them, putting up 157 points in 103 games.
But while there were whispers, no one was able to produce any evidence.
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“Elsewhere in the WHL,” reads a story by Dan Weaver that appeared in the Spokane Spokesman-Review in the summer of 1997, “the Tri-City Herald has reported that the Tri-City Americans’ deal with highly regarded center Scott Gomez is caught up in reports Gomez received a $200,000 incentive package.
“The alleged agreement, initially reported last week in the bi-weekly Peace Arch, B.C., News, would exceed the league’s education and benefits package. The standard is one year of college tuition and books for each year a player is in the league.
“Penalties for exceeding the standard inducement could include a fine and loss of first-round picks in the bantam draft.
“Gomez was on the protected list of the Chiefs, who dropped his name in late January after they were unable to recruit him.
“Gomez signed a national letter of intent to attend Colorado College but the coach at Colorado, Don Lucia, told a Colorado Springs radio station that Gomez decided in favor of the WHL because of a deal that includes cash, insurance and benefits, the Herald reported.
“The Americans deny any improprieties.
“WHL president Dev Dley said that ‘there is no on-going investigation because, as of now, there’s nothing to investigate.’
“Gomez, 17, had a sensational last season with the Tier II South Surrey, B.C., Eagles. The Americans recently hired South Surrey coach Rick Lanz as an assistant. That could be construed as an effort to smooth the 5-11, 176-pound Gomez’ transition to the Americans.”
The story went on to say that Spokane GM Tim Speltz, who had dropped Gomez from the Chiefs’ list after being unsuccessful in attempts to recruit him, asked Toigo and Ams’ general manager Bob Brown about rumours involving a Gomez deal.
“They denied everything,” Speltz said. “We didn’t ask for an investigation (by the league). We have no reason to pursue it.
“In hindsight, I never should have dropped (Gomez).”
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Since then there have been rumblings involving the arrival of the odd player in the WHL but, again, there hasn’t been anything in the way of concrete evidence.
Since the advent of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, I have felt that if it was happening, word would get out simply because the players are always going back and forth on these mediums. To date, however, nothing like that has emerged.
But the announcement out of the OHL office on Friday means the rules have changed because you have to think that where there’s this much smoke there is more than one fire.
While the OHL didn’t reveal much in the way of specifics – Branch has said Windsor’s transgressions involved more than one player and that the investigation too more than a year – Chris Peters over at the United States of Hockey blog writes:
“The rumors have swirled around the Spitfires for years now, only intensifying after the Spits were able to haul in back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010.
“Team GM Warren Rychel has had a lot of success luring college recruits from their commitments, which has made him Public Enemy No. 1 in a lot of college hockey circles.
“Over the last four seasons, Rychel has lured top Americans with a regularity that has long raised eyebrows. In recent years, the Spits have acquired Cam Fowler, Kenny Ryan, Jack Campbell, Austin Watson, Craig Duininck Nick Ebert, Brady Vail, Ben Johnson, Nick Czinder, Andrew Yogan, John Cullen and Josh Unice just to rattle off some names.
“That’s not to implicate any of these players in the accepting of improper benefits, it’s just a list to show how prolific Rychel has been.
“The big names like Fowler (Notre Dame), Ryan (Boston College) and Campbell (Michigan) all had big-time college commitments and were considered big losses for the programs they were set to join.”
For more from Peters, click right here.
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One other thing that this decision does is point out, again, just what a big business major junior hockey has become. Fining a team $400,000 is not a trifling matter.
People who aren’t that close to the game at this level may not realize how profitable some of these teams are. Granted, not all of them are in the same boat; teams in smaller markets and some without new facilities in which to play may be hurting. But there are a large number of the CHL’s 60 teams that are rather well off.
Labour costs are minimal and haven’t changed significantly in recent times. At the same time, ticket sales have soared, the value of franchises (expansion and established) have skyrocketed, the cuts teams get from the Memorial Cup and World Junior Championship pies have increased substantially. Oh, sorry, it’s the MasterCard Memorial Cup, so we should mention that sponsorship money has also rolled in like a blizzard hitting Regina in January.
The Windsor Spitfires obviously are profitable enough that David Branch felt a $400,000 fine would serve as punishment and a deterrent but wouldn’t cripple the franchise.
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And now a few words about David Branch.
There isn’t a better commissioner/president in the world of sports today than Branch. A long-time minor hockey coach, Branch gets it. He really does. He is one authoritative hockey person who is ahead of the curve. He also understands the importance of credibility and the importance of transparency if you hope to maintain that credibility.
With Branch, the game comes first. He was the first of the leaders to come down hard on players who venture over the line when it came to hits from behind and headshots. He also has long been against staged fights and in recent times has appeared to be leaning towards moving to get rid of fighting altogether.
He also is extremely comfortable in his own skin and obviously operates without fear of reprisal from the team owners who sign his cheques.
Or perhaps it comes back to his understanding of the importance of credibility.
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If something like this happened in the WHL, you have to wonder if we would ever hear anything official about it. The WHL operates more and more in a world of secrecy; of late, it has had all the transparency of midnight in Moscow.
This is the league that no longer issues any information regarding the number of concussions suffered by its players. All we know is that there were more than 100 concussions in each of the last two seasons.
Also, the WHL never did let its fans in on the details of the draft in which the Kootenay Ice ended up with the rights to D David Musil, who then was traded to the Vancouver Giants.
When Swiss F Alessio Bertaggia showed up illegally in the camp of the Portland Winterhawks, the WHL never did reveal what disciplinary measures, if any, were taken.
And, no, the WHL doesn’t employ an enforcement officer, although this latest development proves that it should. Considering how much recruiting the WHL and its teams are involved in, an enforcement officer certainly could help monitor things.
The WHL, if you aren’t aware, is recruiting peewee hockey players these days and had players in that 1999-born group at a camp in March. It’s a good bet that some of those players hadn’t yet turned 13 years of age. Mind you, there was registration fee of $350.
This week, the WHL held a by-invitation-only camp in Calgary for 102 1998-born players. These are players who are eligible for the 2013 bantam draft.
Here is a paragraph from a WHL news release on that camp:
“Players attending the WHL Prospects Camp will be provided with a unique hockey experience and be introduced to the tools they will require to develop to their full potential. WHL Alumni will serve as camp coaches, while the presenting partner Reebok CCM will provide participants with full work-out apparel. This camp will also give the players the unique opportunity to display their talents to WHL scouts leading into the season in which they are eligible to be selected in the WHL Bantam Draft.”
The question has to be asked: Does accepting “full work-out apparel” from Reebok CCM violate NCAA rules?
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And, finally, here are a couple of tweets from AJ Jakubec, the former radio voice of the Edmonton Oil Kings who now calls the play for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s.
“It's not exactly a coincidence that 10 of the last 11 OHL Champs have come from the West. Tough to compete when teams are buying players.”
“When agents set a price of 100k for an import player to come over, you know their player isn't coming for free when they make the jump.”

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