VANCOUVER - When the Western Hockey League dropped the guillotine last week on the Portland Winterhawks, fining them $200,000, confiscating five first-round bantam draft picks and suspending coach-general manager Mike Johnston for the season, the natural conclusion from afar was that the team must have been either paying players or burying them behind the arena.
It was understandable then, to refute misconceptions, the Winterhawks pre-emptively released details about their violations — primarily the payment of costs for parents of some players to travel to Portland for games. Among other trivial things, the team supplied its captain “for a period of three years” with a cellphone, although there was no indication of the data plan and whether it was an iPhone or BlackBerry.
It was clear the Winterhawks, who called for “transparency” from the WHL, were also trying to embarrass the league for its apparent heavy-handedness.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison was not amused and neither, it seems, were governors. And it’s those governors, owners of other WHL teams, who are now likely to look unsympathetically on Johnston and the Winterhawks when they appeal Robison’s harsh penalties to the WHL board.
There has long been an upstairs-downstairs kind of co-existence among WHL franchises, as small markets like Swift Current, Moose Jaw and Brandon feel disadvantaged competing against rich markets like Vancouver, Portland and Kelowna. It would be naïve to think some owners didn’t feel jealousy or animosity toward the Winterhawks, especially after Johnston stormed out of the board-of-governors meeting last year when he was accused — erroneously, it turned out — of paying players to get stars like potential first-overall National Hockey League pick Seth Jones to choose Portland over a U.S. college.
But despite Johnston’s claim the Winterhawks believed they were within their right to help parents see their kids play, plus a league guideline on travel so poorly written it couldn’t have come from a law office, Portland was sending player contracts to the league that differed from the contracts they were sending to players’ parents. Apparently, they knew they were breaking rules.
Even with the evidence against Johnston, the former Vancouver Canucks’ assistant didn’t deserve a season-long ban from a team capable of winning the Memorial Cup. But the Winterhawks’ public-relations offensive has hurt chances of a reduced sentence.
“None of this is good for our league,” Giants’ owner Ron Toigo, who fully supports Robison, said Saturday before his team lost 4-3 to the Tri-City Americans on Trevor Linden Night at the Pacific Coliseum. “But there is a chance for us to learn from this.
“We should look at our guidelines and see if there are things we can do fairly to make it easier to recruit more of those top players who are going to college. Those players make our league stronger.”
BYE BYE BECKHAM: So David Beckham didn't change the world after all or become a Hollywood movie star. But he did bring fans and a pile of media attention to Major League Soccer and leaves the sport in North America at least a little stronger than when he arrived 5½ years ago.
For those who mistook fame for ability, Beckham wasn't the best player in MLS and wasn't even the best player on the Los Angeles Galaxy. But he was probably the best thing the league had going for it when he left Europe to join MLS in 2007. And his willingness and ability to help sell soccer and further establish MLS was beyond what cynics, like your correspondent, predicted.
Beckham did his best, even if what he did on the field was sometimes underwhelming.
He became a better, more effective player in a supporting role with Los Angeles, getting the ball to forwards Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and allowing the underrated Juninho to run the midfield. And Beckham is, as he has always been, one of the best free-kick specialists in the world.
As he did with Manchester United and Real Madrid, Beckham leaves the Galaxy as a winner after Los Angeles beat the Houston Dynamo 3-1 in the MLS Cup on Saturday.
Was he worth $35 million? Depends whom you ask.
“Twenty years from now, we're going to look at this league and still be talking about David Beckham as the one who helped turn us,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena told reporters. “He made a phenomenal contribution both on the field and off.”
TAXI! FOLLOW THAT CARD: Given the controversial penalty that allowed Los Angeles to beat the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 at the start of the playoffs a month ago, the inquiry light no doubt flashed on for some when the same referee, Ontario taxi driver Silviu Petrescu, awarded Los Angeles two second-half penalties against Houston.
But Petrescu should been commended for his performance in the final. His less-is-more approach to officiating allowed an attacking game to flow and encouraged players to get on with it. And the penalties were penalties. Defender Ricardo Clark clearly had his right arm extended when he blocked a shot during a goalmouth scramble, and Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall recklessly clattered into Keane on a breakaway. Petrescu was not the story on Saturday. Beckham and the Galaxy were.
WISH UPON STARS: As Pat Quinn and Trevor Linden sat next to one another inside the Pacific Coliseum, Order-of-Canada recipients discussing on radio their days with the Canucks, it was a saddening realization that arguably the two greatest figures in franchise history are now estranged from the club with which they'll always be associated.
Quinn, 69, has been without work since the Edmonton Oilers let his contract expire after replacing him as coach 2 ½ years ago. Linden, 42, has parried interest from other clubs since his retirement in 2008 because he wants to stay in Vancouver. Quinn and Linden are still Canucks. It would be noble if the organization made it so officially by finding meaningful positions for them.
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