KENT — As the Thunderbirds and Silvertips battled it out on the ice for Game 3 Tuesday night, the commissioner of the Western Hockey League paid a visit to the accesso ShoWare Center.
Ron Robison was on hand to take in the action and touch on some league-wide news of late.
Of course, outside of the playoff series between the region’s two WHL teams, the big hockey news in Seattle is the probable arrival of the NHL to Seattle. The WHL has long had a strong partnership with the NHL and Robison is excited for the impact it will have on Puget Sound hockey.
“I think as everyone knows, this is a great hockey market and we’ve had great success in Everett and in Seattle and throughout the Pacific Northwest for that matter,” he said. “I think it’s only going to help promote the game, especially if there’s a strong grass roots component to grow the game at young age levels and encourage young boys and girls to play the game. I think there’s no better way to do that than to bring the National Hockey League to this part of the country.”
Diehard fans of the two junior hockey teams here have had some fear that the arrival of the NHL would spell instant doom for both the Thunderbirds and Silvertips.
Robison does not share that concern and feels that the current franchises will prosper.
“I think it’s great for hockey in this region,” he said. “We’re well entrenched in this market. We’re positioned well with a team in the north in Everett and a team in the south in Kent. We look forward to welcoming the NHL to the market.”
WHL launches investigation into allegations made by former players
Robison also touched on an internal investigation the league has launched to look into claims made by two former players last month while testifying in front of the Oregon State Legislature.
The Legislature was hearing arguments about whether Portland Winterhawks players should be considered amateur athletes and thus exempt from being owed minimum wage pay for their time. Washington State passed a similar bill in 2015 that determined WHL players from the state’s four franchises were amateurs.
During the deliberation in Oregon two former players, Tyler Maxwell and James McEwan, detailed some troubling experiences they went through while playing in the WHL.
The most shocking of these testimonies was from Maxwell, who played for Everett from 2008 to 2012. Maxwell claimed that he suffered a broken knee cap in a 2009 game and was initially refused X-rays by the team’s medical staff. He further claimed that he was forced to play in seven more games with the injury before being properly treated.
Maxwell also claimed academic fraud while with the Silvertips, saying that he was given good grades in exchange for autographs and was named Scholastic Player of the Year by the club despite, as he claims, only taking three courses during his senior year of high school.
In response, the WHL has hired a former RCMP officer to investigate the claims. Robison wouldn’t comment on the details of the investigation but did say the league hopes to have it concluded in April.
“Obviously we were caught off guard by the statements made by the players,” he said Tuesday. “It’s interesting that these players represented us at a number of different events and spoke highly of their experience in the Western Hockey League so we were very disappointed and surprised but also concerned at the same time. We’ve launched this independent review to find out what took place.”
Obtaining amateur status is something that the league is working towards as part of a larger law suit that has been filed in Canada against the Canadian Hockey League by former players who claim they were employees and owed pay.
The WHL has been able to gain amateur status in many of the regions that it operates in but the issue in Oregon remains unsettled.
“We look at our success in Washington State and the other provinces in Western Canada, with the exception of Alberta, all have exemptions now,” Robison said. “We expect we’ll get there at some point. It’s not just about Western Hockey League teams, it’s about amateur sport and making sure that there’s a clarification of the employment standards.”
Television and Seattle ownership group
Robison also commented on the WHL’s search for a new television partner in the future. This year, the league did not have a regular weekly broadcast as in the past with Shaw TV in Canada.
“We need to get more broadcasts,” he said. “We have a national broadcast partner in Sportsnet which has a tremendous agreement in Canada. We’d love to have a partner in the Pacific Northwest, we have some local broadcasts here but certainly Shaw, and replacing that would be priority for sure. In the meantime we’ve got webcasting of 100% of our games and that’s available to our parents and our fans. I think that’s critical service that we’re going to continue.”
The Thunderbirds had a change in ownership prior to the start of this season as Dan and Lindsey Leckelt purchased the franchise that had been owned by general manager Russ Farwell. So far, Robison likes what he’s seen from the new group.
“They’re very enthusiastic,” he said of the Leckelt brothers. “First of all, they have a hockey background. They played the game, they love it, and have been investing in it. They have franchises in other leagues but this is something they’ve always really strived for, was to obtain a Western Hockey League team. They have business interests here in Seattle area so they’re connected to this community and very committed long term.”