Mike Johnston

WHL hammers Winterhawks for undisclosed “player benefit violations”

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The Portland Winterhawks are being punished for what the Western Hockey League calls a “series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons.”

The league announced today that the Winterhawks will be barred from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and will forfeit their first-round picks in the following four drafts.

GM/head coach Mike Johnston has also been suspended for the balance of the 2012-13 season, plus the playoffs.

In addition, the organization has been fined $200,000.

“Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL Regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL,” said league commissioner Ron Robison in a statement.

“It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL Regulations as previous media reports indicated.”

No specifics of the violations were disclosed in the announcement; however, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the league’s investigation did not uncover any “irregularities” with regards to the club’s recruitment and acquisition of top prospect Seth Jones.

The sanctions come in the wake of a dramatic turnaround for the Winterhawks. When Johnston took over early in 2008-09, he inherited a team that had won just 47 games in the previous three seasons. Fast forward to the present and the team is coming off back-to-back appearances in the WHL finals.

Recent first-round NHL picks out of Portland:

2010: Ryan Johansen, 4th overall by Columbus
2010: Nino Niederreiter, 5th overall by NY Islanders
2011: Sven Baertschi, 13th overall by Calgary
2011: Joe Morrow, 23rd overall by Pittsburgh
2012: Derrick Pouliot, 8th overall by Pittsburgh

Update (4:25 p.m. ET):

The club has released a statement outlining the violations that it’s been found to have committed.

—- A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program
—- Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland
—- Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen
—- The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons

Not surprisingly, the club feels the punishment is overly harsh.

“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, 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 the release.

“We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions. We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”

Image of Mike Johnston via winterhawks.com

Blues, Capitals to play exhibition game in Kansas City

Pedestrians walk past the Sprint Center, Sunday, March 24, 2013, in Kansas City, Mo. The city was preparing for the third round of the NCAA college basketball tournament at the arena after the region received 6-10 inches of snow overnight. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Kansas City is going to host another NHL exhibition game.

The St. Louis Blues announced today that they’ll take on the Washington Capitals on Oct. 5 at Sprint Center. Both Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Ovechkin will be there, at least according to the press release.

The Blues last played in K.C. a couple of years ago when they took on the Stars in exhibition play. In 2011, a sellout crowd watched the Penguins and Kings at Sprint Center.

A market once considered a candidate for expansion or relocation — particularly after Sprint Center opened in 2007 — the NHL-to-Kansas City buzz has since died down. Last year, there was no interest from Kansas City when the league called for expansion applications.

Sensing an opportunity to make their team a favorite of all Missourians, not just the ones in St. Louis, the Blues have said they’d like to cultivate their fan base across the state in Kansas City.

Report: Pens won’t make Fleury (talks too much) available to media

at Pepsi Center on December 9, 2015 in Denver, Colorado.
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Don’t expect many updates on Marc-Andre Fleury‘s health over the next little while.

Well — don’t expect them to come from Fleury, anyway.

Per TVA Sports, Fleury has been shut down from speaking with reporters until he’s fully recovered from the concussion that’s sidelined him since Apr. 2.

A translation of Renaud Lavioe’s piece for TVA, per PHT’s Joey Alfieri:

Fleury practiced with his teammates this morning at the Verizon Center.

What I can tell you is he’s feeling better, but the Penguins have decided not to make Fleury available to the media because he says too much.

The next time Fleury talks to the media, it’s because he’ll be ready to return.

Not to be mean, but Matt Murray has given up three goals or more in back-to-back games.

Earlier this week, Fleury told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that — despite participating in on-ice workouts — he’s still dealing with concussion symptoms.

“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve been through,” he explained. “Some good days, when you think you’re back, and some bad days, when you think it’s never going to get fixed.”

The Fleury situation seems to have rankled some within the Penguins organization — like head coach Mike Sullivan, who took issue with questions about the club’s handling of Fleury.

Here’s a related series of tweets from DKonPittsburghSports’ Josh Yohe:

Game 2 of the Pens-Caps series goes tomorrow from Verizon at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN). Matt Murray, who allowed four goals on 35 shots in the Game 1 loss, is expected to start in goal.

North Dakota loses another d-man as Kings sign LaDue

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 09:  Paul LaDue #6 of North Dakota skates against the Boston University Terriers during the second period of the 2015 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championship semifinals at TD Garden on April 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Keaton Thompson, Troy Stecher and now, Paul LaDue.

On Friday, the Kings announced that LaDue — the junior d-man that helped North Dakota win the Frozen Four — agreed to a one-year, entry-level deal, forgoing his senior season in the process.

LaDue, 23, was part of a talented UND blueline that also featured fellow juniors Troy Stecher — who since signed with Vancouver — and Thompson, who inked with the Ducks.

So yeah, bit of an exodus.

Thankfully for North Dakota, freshman scoring sensation Brock Boeser has already committed to returning for his sophomore campaign, while junior defenseman Gage Ausmus — a San Jose draftee — vowed to go back to school as well.

As for Frozen Four MOP Drake Caggiula — a senior that was already leaving school — he’s already begun his tour of interested NHL suitors.

Per TSN, Caggiula has shortlisted six clubs: Philadelphia, Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, Chicago and Buffalo.

Wilson fined for kneeing Sheary

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No suspension for Capitals forward Tom Wilson. Only a fine.

That’s what the NHL’s Department of Player Safety decided after Wilson kneed Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary last night in Washington.

The fine of $2,403.67 is the maximum allowable under the CBA, and, at the very least, it puts Wilson on official notice.

Wilson was not penalized on the play, and Sheary was able to leave the ice under his own power and remain in the game.

“We’re just going to play hockey, and the refs are going to call it the way they see it,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told reporters afterwards. “Our guys are going to play.”

This morning, Capitals coach Barry Trotz reportedly said of the play, “It was OK, but it wasn’t I would say necessary.”