Last Friday, the Ontario Hockey League announced that the Niagara IceDogs will be fined $250,000 and lose their first-round picks in the 2019 and 2021 OHL Drafts.
This is all from the league finding the club in violation of the league’s recruitment policy. This comes in the middle of a big season for the IceDogs who are in the middle of a push towards the postseason. The IceDogs did release a statement immediately following the announcement of the sanctions.
Recruitment controversy is not rare in sports, most notably with collegiate sports. Universities such as Ohio State, Louisville, and Miami are a couple of recent examples of schools that have lured athletes in outside of the NCAA’s guidelines. This has not been the first time, however, that a team in the CHL has been caught for violating rules. Back in the summer of 2012, the OHL fined the Windsor Spitfires for similar violations for a total of $400,000 and five draft picks. The Spitfires did appeal and were able to knock down the penalty to $250,000 and four draft picks.
That Fall, the Portland Winterhawks were found guilty of an illegal recruitment process. The club was fined by the WHL for $200,000 and GM/Head Coach Mike Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the 2011-2012 season.
What Could Have Happened?
The OHL green-lit an investigation on the IceDogs with the law firm, Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb LLP heading the inspection process. The details on the violations have not been released by the league. According to Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino, Niagara will appeal the league’s decision, however there is no time frame for the decision to be made.
It would be wrong to assume what exactly the IceDogs did to break the league’s recruitment rules, however it is worth noting why these rules are in affect for a better understanding.
Back in 2009, the OHL’s Board of Governors created an enforcement program to ensure that teams do not violate the current recruitment policies. The program was built to ensure that all teams are competitive, and no team has a certain advantage over other clubs. Stories through time accused teams of bribing players to come play for their team, including a number of players leaving schools in the NCAA to come play in the OHL. There had always been finger-wagging towards bigger teams, such as Windsor, London, Kitchener, etc. Unfortunately, the Spits (who had just won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010) were the first to be caught under the new regime.
To allow some insight in what COULD have happened with the IceDogs, you would have to look at the Portland case. Unlike the OHL in regards to Windsor, the WHL did not hide the violations the Winterhawks had, without giving names of the players. This included fully paid training programs for prospective players, and multiple flights to Portland for seven families of players. Even a cell phone was given to one of the Portland captains.
Once again, the only ones that know of Niagara’s actions are the league and the team’s management. The OHL’s maximum fine for a single action is $250,000, meaning the IceDogs are only being accused of one action. compared to Windsor’s supposed multiple violations.
How Does This Affect the Future?
With the loss of two first round picks, obviously the IceDogs are going to be missing on talent in the early stages of the drafts this summer, and in 2021. Silver lining, this year’s pick will not be the highest, due to the team’s position atop the league’s standings. However, it could result in a more timid recruitment process for the team moving forward, in fear of any more allegations.
In terms of the team’s on-ice success, the team could find some struggles in the next couple of seasons. The Spits, since the 2011-2012, have finished last in the West Division twice, and failed to make it passed the first round every year they have made the playoffs. Even when Windsor won the Memorial Cup, they were knocked out in the first round by London, and only made it to the tournament because they were the host team.
The Winterhawks have fared a little better, as they have made the playoffs in every season since their sanctions. However, they have been unable to make it back to the Memorial Cup since 2013.
For the IceDogs, competing in a league with consistent success from teams such as London, the Soo, Kitchener, and Oshawa, it may be difficult for Niagara to be a legitimate contender. On the bright side, through development and smarter recruitment, the club should have no issue being one of the better teams in the OHL.
Stats and records found from OntarioHockeyLeague.com and WHL.ca