Branch out on a limb

OHL commissioner David Branch speaks to the media at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont., May...

OHL commissioner David Branch speaks to the media at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont., May 27, 2011. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:28 PM ET

LONDON, ONT. - The Ontario Hockey League embarrassed and damaged itself on the weekend.

It acted like the schoolyard bully that didn't get his way and in the process proved what many have known for a while - players are no more than meat passing through the processing plant.

The suspension of Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov for two games by OHL commissioner David Branch was a clear indication that selling tickets, appeasing sponsors and making money - no matter the cost to the player or his teams - is the No. 1 priority.

This should be the first story handed to a player in the throes of making a decision about where to play the game at the next level.

Go ahead, play in the OHL, but be aware that they own you.

If you don't do a song-and-dance for its sponsors, the weight of the league will come down on you with the full force of their wallets.

In this instance, Branch not only felt he knew what was better for Yakupov and his team, but also he knew better than London doctor Bob Giffin, one of the best knee specialists around.

Sound ridiculous?

Yakupov, the projected No. 1 pick in this year's NHL draft, was injured at the world junior hockey tournament (a huge money maker for Hockey Canada and the CHL).

Yakupov missed almost a month with the injury. He came back and played three games for the Sting - important games, ones that counted in the standings and meant something to the community of Sarnia - before his command appearance in the top prospects game in Kelowna.

He sat out most of the second and third periods in that final game with the Sting.

The team and the doctor from the renowned Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic in London felt it was in the best interest of the player not to participate in the prospects game, which allows scouts from NHL teams to check out the herd and decide which side of beef they like.

It's one of those promotional showcases for the CHL, of which Branch is also the president.

It's a photo op for sponsors with players; an opportunity for fans to see some of the top healthy players in the country; an opportunity for junior hockey people to cozy up to big-time hockey people.

There is no reason to play if you aren't healthy. It's a meaningless game. Scouts already know Yakupov.

That didn't matter to Branch. He wanted Yakupov to fly west to be examined by Kelowna team doctors. That in itself questions the reputation of the Fowler Kennedy clinic and Giffin.

Branch cited Plymouth Whalers forward Tom Wilson, who sat out a regular-season game to play in the prospects game. It was nice of the Whalers to sit him because Wilson probably felt it was important for him to play so that scouts could get a better look.

The bullies at the CHL level forced No. 2-rated player, Quebec Remparts centre Mikhail Grigorenko, to visit the Kelowna doctor. Grigorenko said his ankle was only "80% healed." He was judged healthy to play.

Patrick Roy, GM and coach of the Remparts, ripped Branch as well as Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison and his own league commissioner.

"I find it extremely unfortunate that we seem to want to promote the league's image instead of protecting the players," said Roy, who was fined by the QMJHL.

The truth hurts.

What happens if Grigorenko injured his ankle? What if Yakupov was forced to play and reinjured his knee? What would the cost be to the Sting in playoff money? What would it have done to its fan base?

The OHL didn't fine the Sting as the QMJHL did Roy. It chose to hurt those faithful fans and teammates by suspending Yakupov in a playoff run.

The junior leagues caterwaul about how much they care for players. It's amazing they can do it with a straight face.

It brings guffaws when:

  • The league forces injured players to play or be suspended.

  • The OHL makes its players play three games in less than three days.

  • The OHL allows a player to be traded two or three times in a season.

    This is a business and every player who plays major junior hockey is a piece of property indentured to his league.

    That's no secret.

    But at certain times, it just becomes more evident.

    E-mail morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca, read Morris's column or follow MoDaCoatLFPress on Twitter.


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