TORONTO - The Windsor Spitfires are facing a $400,000 fine, the steepest in Ontario Hockey League history, over allegations they violated player benefit and recruitment rules.
OHL commissioner David Branch, who also took away five future draft picks from the Spitfires on Friday, wouldn't provide specifics on the alleged violations. He said two separate investigations were conducted and he felt there was enough evidence to impose sanctions.
"It's a very serious matter," Branch said in an interview. "It's a dark day for our league in many respects but hopefully when all is said and done it can be turned into a positive where people recognize and are comforted by the fact that every effort is being made and taken to ensure everyone complies with the rules and regulations of the league.''
Warren Rychel, the Spitfires vice-president and general manager, did not immediately return a telephone message Friday. But the club did issue a statement denying any wrongdoing.
"We are in receipt of the decision by the Ontario Hockey League regarding the Windsor Spitfires Hockey Club and completely deny all accusations that have been put forward," the club said. "It is the team's position that there is no evidence to support this decision, nor did the league follow due process or its own rules regarding procedural fairness in the making of this decision.''
While Branch wouldn't provide details, he said the evidence from the investigations was compelling. Under terms of the league's enforcement program, the maximum penalty for an offence is a $250,000 fine and loss of three draft picks. However, in this case more than one violation took place, Branch said.
"Absolutely, you would not venture to take such sanctions unless you were certainly more than comfortable with the evidence," he said. "There was more than one player involved here so thus a $400,000 fine and a takeway of five draft picks.''
In addition to the fine, the Spitfires will forfeit first-round picks in the 2013, 2014 and 2016 OHL drafts as well as second-round selections in 2015 and 2017.
The Spitfires plan to appeal the sanctions.
"We will pursue all avenues of appeal regarding the decision made by the commissioner, David Branch," the statement read. "We are proud members of the Ontario Hockey League and will be vigorously defending the well-deserved and established reputation of our hockey club as an exemplary organization both on and off the ice, through the appropriate appeal process."
The team says it's "confident" the decision will be overturned following the appeal process.
Branch said the Spitfires will launch their appeal before the OHL's board of governors, which will decide whether to uphold the original sanction, change it or ultimately turn it down.
Branch said in 2009 the OHL's board of governors established an enforcement program to address violations of recruitment and/or benefits to players. A year later, Ken Miller was hired as the league's enforcement officer.
"It (enforcement program) was designed for the purpose of ensuring that all teams, shall we say, play on a level playing field," Branch said. "Clearly the governors wanted to see the league move forward and make sure that everyone was conforming with the rules."
While Miller has conducted several investigations, Branch said this is the first time the league has taken action against a violation.
The Spitfires captured consecutive Memorial Cup titles in 2009 and 2010, becoming just the eighth team in Canadian Hockey League history to do so. Last season, Windsor finished eighth overall in the OHL's Western Conference standings with a 29-32-7 record before being swept 4-0 by the London Knights in the opening round of the playoffs.