The WHL hit the Portland Winterhawks with major sanctions Wednesday, after the team was found to have violated player-benefits rules – the second such punishment of a major-junior hockey program in the past four months.
The sanctions could spark a battle which would compound the existing unrest in major-junior hockey.
Representatives for the Winterhawks, the top team in the WHL this season, said the franchise is considering "options on how we will proceed."
The Winterhawks say the issues mostly focused on paying for flights for families of players to come to Portland to watch games.
The team also paid for its captain's cellphone for three seasons.
Compensation to players is severely restricted in major junior, as the teenagers receive only nominal pay, starting at about $35 a week. They do, however, build up scholarship credits for postsecondary education.
For its sins, Portland was fined $200,000, will lose nine WHL bantam draft picks (including its first-rounders for the next five years), and general manager/head coach Mike Johnston was suspended for the rest of the year.
Johnston led the Winterhawks to a 20-4-1-0 record, tops in the U.S. Division. The team has been buoyed by the play of potential No. 1 NHL draft pick Seth Jones, a defenceman who is the son of former NBA player Ronald (Popeye) Jones.
Wednesday's disciplinary action could result in the powerful Portland franchise taking on the WHL establishment.
"We were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don't feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed," Johnston said in a statement.
Turmoil has roiled major-junior hockey of late.
Four months ago, the Windsor Spitfires were blasted with the harshest punishment to be dropped on an OHL team: A $400,000 fine, and five lost draft picks for player-recruitment violations. The fine was later reduced to $250,000 when Windsor dropped its appeal.
More broadly, there was a recent failed effort to start a union for the young players across the WHL, OHL and QMJHL, but many people believe it will be revived with stronger leadership.
The tension that underpins much of the conflict is the competition between major-junior teams and the U.S. NCAA, both of which hotly recruit promising teenagers at the bantam level. If a player chooses major junior, he is not allowed play college hockey in the United States.
Indicative of the sensitive nature of the issues at play, several senior officials on different WHL teams reached by telephone Wednesday declined comment.
The WHL issued a statement – in which it noted it found no evidence of payments to players – and said it would not speak of the matter again.
"All WHL clubs understand that they are required to fully comply and respect our league regulations or they will face significant consequences," commissioner Ron Robison said in the statement.
Portland has been revived under the leadership of its owner, Calgary oilman Bill Gallacher, who took over in the fall of 2008. Gallacher, an engineer by training, made his fortune in the oil sands and is chairman of Athabasca Oil Corp.
The Winterhawks missed the playoffs in Gallacher's first season, but he poured money into the team, going on a hiring spree, starting with Johnston, who was brought in after being an associate coach in the NHL for nine seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.
The team has been revived – and made the WHL final the past two seasons, powered by talent such as winger Sven Baertschi, a Calgary Flames prospect who briefly sparkled in the NHL last year as an injury call-up and is currently in the AHL during the lockout.
Gallacher, according to the team website, "is providing the organization with all the necessary resources to return the Winterhawks to the elite status Portland fans remember."