It's been rumored for a couple of weeks that the WHL was investigating the Portland Winterhawks for player recruitment violations, similar to the OHL's investigation of the Windsor Spitfires that eventually led to a $400,000 fine that was reduced down to $250k on appeal.
Today, the penalties for the Winterhawks were announced by the WHL, and they are devastating. They were fined $200,000, general manager/head coach Mike Johnston is suspended for the rest of the season and the WHL playoffs, and perhaps most importantly, the Winterhawks will not be allowed to participate in the first five rounds of this year's WHL bantam draft, and won't make a selection in the first round of the WHL bantam draft for the next five years.
The press release claims, "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." But looking at the severity of the fines handed out, I don't believe that for a second. Here is what Portland says they are being fined for.
This is, by far, more devastating than the penalties laid upon Windsor. First round picks are generally a little less valuable in the WHL, since players are a year away from really competing in the league, but essentially missing out on an entire draft next year, combined with all those high-end picks is going to put them in a very deep hole.
Portland's franchise also doesn't seem to be in quite as sturdy a position as the Spitfires were. They've done very well recently, but the the Winterhawks are less than five years removed from an embarrassing financial situation, and a hefty fine, plus the loss in revenue if the team goes in the tank could put them in serious trouble again.
The Winterhawks have been a thorn in the side of many college hockey programs in recent years. They were the team that plucked Cam Reid from St. Cloud midway through last season. Starting goalie Mac Carruth signed with Portland after his commitment to Minnesota-Duluth was delayed a year, and they set off a minor panic in Minnesota when two top 16-year-olds signed with them, and of course, Portland beat out North Dakota for the services of Seth Jones. So it would certainly be a relief to see the Winterhawks competing on a more level playing field.