Sunday Morning Coffee: The OHL, Windsor sanctions and college hockey

By Bob Miller    CHP Managing Editor     August 12, 2012

Observers of both the OHL and college hockey were more than  a little surprised late this week at the OHL’s announcement that the Windsor Spitfires had been assessed a $400,000 fine and the loss of multiple high draft choices for what the league termed violation of “the League’s Player Benefit and Recruitment Rules and Policies”.

Here’s part of the statement as detailed in an official press release by the OHL:

 “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.

Undoubtedly, Windsor will be hurt more by the loss of draft choices than the fine, but $400,000 is $400,000 and that can’t feel good to the Spitfires either.

Rumors and claims about OHL franchises paying large cash bonuses abound, and everyone around the sport has heard those rumurs.  The operative theory about those rumors is that the league has benefited by the higher level “name” players such offers were alleged to attract and, thus, league conveniently looked the other way.

Speculation in Ontario is that other high profile franchises could be next on the docket if the league is truly interested in cleaning up the issue of benefit and recruitment violations.  While no actual evidence of any violations has ever been produced, the loud whispers among league observers is that there very well may be fire to accompany the smoke in those whispers.

In an opinion piece by Patrick King on Sportsnet.ca on Friday, King wrote:

The league’s policy has been made clear to member teams, but it had previously been viewed as somewhat similar to a soft salary cap. Teams were able to circumvent some rules and, as one source noted to Sportsnet.ca on Friday, “everybody was doing it.”

Until the exact circumstances are known in regards to Windsor’s violations, every team is wondering if they could be facing similar sanctions. One source noted there were approximately a handful of other investigations ongoing and Friday’s ruling could simply be the tip of the iceberg.

It’s no secret there is a disparity between the haves and the have-not’s in junior hockey. It doesn’t always come down to drafting the best players because the best players aren’t always willing to play in every situation.

The most common situation occurs before the draft, when a player will send a letter to each member team advising them not to draft him, since he plans on playing college hockey instead. He would then slip in the draft and be chosen by the team he arranged a deal with. Some of the league’s highest profile players have been known to do it in order to land at a desirable destination.

The definition of a desirable destination, however, is subjective and can mean different things to different people. As one source put it, “if I was a kid, I’d play for (Spitfires head coach) Bob Boughner.”

The Canadian Hockey League’s import draft, for example, is a running joke amongst league insiders. European players are known to have “cooked deals” in advance of the draft and in some cases, the difference between landing a European player and losing him to another team is a mere $5,000-$10,000 extra, a sum most teams would hardly bat an eye at to secure the player. A player’s agent will use those sums as a barometer and hold the player ransom, so to speak, if a team isn’t willing to meet the level of compensation asked.

The question by pondered in many circles is whether the league’s Windsor sanctions is window dressing attempting  to paint the circuit as truly concerned or whether the league is determined to rein in the alleged violations of league policy.

On Saturday, the Windsor Star’s Bob Duff addressed that and other possible ramifications and presented a short history lesson on   college hockey’s concerns over player losses to such alleged extra benefits.

Wrote Duff:

Earlier this summer, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Michigan Daily reported that the Kitchener Rangers offered Jacob Trouba $200,000 to turn his back on his commitment to the Michigan Wolverines and sign with the Rangers. Like the Spitfires, the Rangers didn’t take these accusations lying down. They stoutly denied them and are suing the paper for libel.

Branch acknowledged the Rangers case was also investigated and no proof or wrongdoing was found in that case.

In recent years, Windsor has been at the forefront of the movement which saw players back out on commitments to U.S. colleges in order to jump to an OHL team. Cam Fowler (Notre Dame), Kenny Ryan (Boston College), Jack Campbell (Michigan), Austin Watson (Maine) and Pat Sieloff (Miami-Ohio) all came to the Spitfires via this route.

There is no proof of any wrongdoing in these cases either nor in others that didn’t involve Windsor.

J.T. Miller reneged on North Dakota to join the Plymouth Whalers. John Gibson bowed out on his commitment to Michigan to join Kitchener. Connor Murphy left Miami at the altar and signed with the Sarnia Sting.

Paul Kelly, former head of College Hockey Inc., a marketing arm designed to encourage players to stay and play in the NCAA, was adamant in a 2011 interview with the Boston Globe that some junior teams were paying players under the table to join their clubs.

“As much as the CHL denies it, there are still instances where money is being paid to the family to lure kids away and de-commit from colleges,” Kelly said.

“It’s off the books, under the table, whatever you want to call it. If your dad is a fisherman, an out-of-work machinist, or a farmer, and a CHL program comes along and offers you $300,000 in cash, it’s tough for these families not to accept that type of proposal.”

Since the NCAA considers junior leagues to be professional because there are players performing in the CHL who are already under contract to NHL teams, major junior players are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, making this player poaching a one-way street.

“We are going into a back-alley brawl,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol told the Grand Forks Herald.

“They are bringing guns. We’re coming with no weapon and one hand tied behind our back.”

Until Friday, such accusations had no basis in fact, but now, there is at least cause to believe it could be so.

Concerned and frustrated parties in college hockey accustomed to a parade of player losses to CHL teams can only sit and wait, hopeful that the far-from-level playing field in the battle for top players’ services has at least been leveled a little.  Stay tuned.

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