The Ontario Hockey League delivered a clear message regarding racial intolerance to its teams and players yesterday, handing the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds the harshest fine in league history.
The Greyhounds were fined $50,000 for remarks made by former coach and general manager John Vanbiesbrouck after a game two weeks ago. He referred to team captain Trevor Daley as a "nigger" in front of several players.
Vanbiesbrouck, a former goaltender who played 19 years in the National Hockey League, has already resigned both his coach and general manager positions and has announced he will sell his one-quarter ownership of the team.
"The topic and issue that had to be dealt with was the most sordid and concerning issue we've ever had," OHL commissioner David Branch said. "This is the strongest discipline our league has ever issued, certainly in my time."
The league also announced that Vanbiesbrouck, who was inducted into the Florida Panthers' den of honour last month, has been suspended indefinitely from the league, with eligibility for reinstatement after five years. Other Canadian hockey leagues have said they will honour the suspension.
"The lesson we have all shared is how quickly one's life can change if you do something that is unacceptable," Branch said. "When I visited with the Sault Ste. Marie hockey team last week, that was one of the things I discussed with them. We all must learn this."
The OHL's harassment and abuse policy has also been revised to increase the minimum suspension for players to five games from two. A minimum team fine of $500 has also been added.
Branch said that while the league needed no prompting to hand down the stiff penalty, it has been subject to a large amount of criticism during the past two weeks.
"There was a very strong response expressing concern and issue with what occurred," Branch said. "Absolutely.
"I think there was an understanding on our part that what occurred was damaging to us in terms of a league and what we try to be. We had to respond in a strong, clear fashion to make sure everyone understands we do not stand for this and this is not part of our value system."
It is the club's responsibility to pay the fine, and the money will be used to establish a new league sensitivity program. Branch said he expects that the Greyhounds will pay the full amount and that the league has the means to ensure the franchise does so.
Greyhounds president Sam Biasucci could not be reached yesterday.
Bobby Orr, Daley's agent, was satisfied with the penalty, but still upset that the incident occurred.
"This is a very serious thing, people have been hurt and it should not happen," Orr said. "The league has addressed a serious incident in a very quick and tough manner and the penalties given here show how seriously they take this kind of behaviour."
Orr and Branch both agreed that the offensive word will raise people's awareness that racial slurs are unacceptable, be they from players, coaches or management.
"I really believe it will," Branch said. "In the call with our general managers, we said it's essential you sit with your players and explain what we mean by this. It's zero tolerance. We mean none."
The previous largest fine in the OHL was $10,000, levied against the London Knights on Nov. 10, 2000, after interim coach Mark Hunter was suspended from his GM duries for the balance of the season for allegedly sending players from the team's bench to fight.