The OHL dropped a bombshell last Friday morning when they announced that the Windsor Spitfires had violated the league's recruitment and benefits policy, and levied a fine of $400,000 and multiple first round draft choices on the Spitfires. The shock isn't that Windsor is guilty of committing those crimes--even if the OHL won't release exactly what Windsor did--but in the fact that the OHL actually did something about it.
So, as I was asked multiple times on Friday, what does this mean? The OHL had to have been aware of these types of things for some time. Why choose now to finally enforce their rules? There's no way to know for sure. For my best guess, we have to go back a month to my story about Jacob Trouba and the Michigan Daily/Kitchener Rangers controversy:
Nobody involved in the CHL wants it getting out that a player like Jacob Trouba could make what divides out to about $8333 per week, while nearly everyone else in the league is making $50 a week, which is almost 167 times less than that. Again, to give those numbers a little perspective, if the NHL adopted that same pay scale, a highly coveted high-end player like Zach Parise or Ryan Suter would be worth four pennies under $87.5 million per year.
The average player stipend is so low that it is just too lucrative for CHL teams to let kids know that they have the ability to bargain for better deals. That's why payments for players will remain something that everybody knows, but nobody is willing to say, unless couched in the vaguest of terms like "more resources". Hopefully more kids are smart enough to read past the phony threats of lawsuits and realize that that money is out there for them.
In the age of online media and Twitter and other instant news sources, it has become easier for players to hear all the rumors about the money thrown around, and harder for CHL teams to dismiss them as urban legends. Kitchener's litigious lawsuit probably deters writers from reporting rumors, but probably doesn't deter a savvy player from using their leverage to hold out for a more lucrative deal from an OHL team.
Windsor's suspension gives the rest of the league plausible deniability when it comes to paying players. Fans in London and Kitchener were already declaring their teams pure and clean since their teams weren't implicated. The OHL now has some proof that they at least attempt to enforce their rules. The threat of that enforcement, regardless of how real it ends up being, gives teams the ability to tell players, or perhaps just the majority of players, that they can't pay players more money and the players should just be happy with their $50 a week.
Other miscellaneous thoughts...
-As for Windsor's punishment, it stings, but certainly isn't fatal. $400,000 is a significant sum for anyone, but the Spitfires have been hugely profitable in recent years, and obviously they had a lot of money to throw around. The draft picks hurt too, but Windsor has never had trouble getting players to slide in the draft to them. It might make them a little less competitive, but certainly won't tank their organization.
-Is this just the tip of the iceberg, as Patrick King suggests? I believe it could be if the OHL was really that serious about cleaning up this sort of thing. I could see most of the big dogs each taking a hit, thus ensuring nobody gets hurt too bad relatively speaking. Though I also suspect they don't search too hard in Kitchener because of the legal implications of finding something.
-Where does the money from the $400,000 fine go? It should probably go to the players that were forced to take artificially depressed payouts while other players were given these illegal payments. I'm betting it won't.
-The players involved and what they did are still a mystery. I've heard names rumored and figures quoted. It's nothing particularly surprising if you've paid attention to this sort of thing. One thing I've always wondered is if there are any sort of tax implications to this sort of thing? Either the players reported the income, which would make it fairly easy to prove, or they didn't, in which case they could be in some big trouble.
-The OHL cleared Kitchener in the Jacob Trouba case, which is no surprise. Since Trouba never actually took any money, all there was to go on was the word of Trouba and Kitchener, and both denied anything happening long ago. I doubt anyone else was willing to get involved and offer information to Barney Fife after Kitchener threatened a million dollar lawsuit on an unnamed source.