Some big news came out of the University of Denver Tuesday night, as freshman Quentin Shore was considering leaving the Pioneers and joining the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks. Shore, whose brother Nick is the leading scorer for Denver (older brother Drew also played for the program), played for the U.S. national team development program alongside Seth Jones, now a star defenseman for the Winterhawks. But with a night to sleep on it, the picture changed. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Portland right now and it appears the timing was not right for Shore to jump into the fray.
This would have been great news for Portland, which could use some bright news after the WHL came down on the Hawks with a crushing punishment last week for recruiting violations.
The sum total of the sanctions? Portland is banned from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and also gives up its first round pick from 2014-2017. The organization was fined $200,000 and GM-coach Mike Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs.
Portland’s crimes, according to a WHL investigation, included giving cell phones to team captains and paying for parents’ flights and off-season training – all of which are against league rules. All told, 54 violations involving 14 players were tallied.
“These sanctions are necessary in order to protect the overall welfare and integrity of our league,” said commissioner Ron Robison in an official WHL statement. “And to preserve a level playing field for all of our member clubs and our players.”
To me, the last sentence is the most crucial here – the concept of the level playing field. Major junior has become a juggernaut in recent years, with nationally televised events attracting big media attention and the World Junior Championship essentially a showcase of the CHL’s best talent – even Russia’s best players this year, Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, have suited up in major junior. With an overhaul of its education package, the CHL has nearly removed any academic incentive for a kid to play NCAA unless he wants to go to an Ivy League school.
The CHL is big-time, but will it admit that?
I was in Portland just before the Mike Johnston era began. It was the beginning of the 2008-09 season and I happened to be on vacation when the Hawks hosted Kelowna. It was the second game of the season and the Hawks were predicted to be dreadful. The building was near empty and the home team won because the Rockets were without Luke Schenn and Tyler Myers, who were attending NHL training camps. One month after my visit, Bill Gallacher bought the team and quickly began to turn it around. Johnston came in to coach as a mid-season replacement and though the final record was 19-48-5 that year, Portland would soon become a powerhouse. Johnston got the team back to the playoffs in his first full season, then to the final the next two campaigns. Top NHL prospects such as Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi, Ty Rattie and Derrick Pouliot all came and contributed.
This year, Jones is the crown jewel.
Under the old regime, Jones never would have come to Portland (who acquired him from Everett) – he would have gone to the University of North Dakota. But Johnston and sidekick Travis Green (who will run the ship for the rest of the year) have created a pro-style environment in the PDX thanks to Gallacher’s backing. Similarly, one of the main reasons Grigorenko went to Quebec instead of staying in Moscow was because of the developmental environment GM-coach-owner Patrick Roy has constructed.
As it is now, the Portlands, Quebecs or Londons already have much more success landing elite draft picks (imports and North American) than the Swift Currents or Acadie-Bathursts – but they also produce many more top prospects. If the CHL wants to really hold everyone to the same standard, they can expect to lose more recruits to the NCAA or Europe. If they open things up, the talent stays and major junior remains a continually rising force.
It’s time for the CHL to make a decision.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.