Suspended Thunderbirds coach tells his sideSunday, September 09, 2012 by: SooToday.com Staff
SooToday.com received the following letter today from Jamie Henderson, Assistant Coach of the Soo Thunderbirds, who was suspended by the NOJHL this past April for "conduct that is detrimental to the interests of the NOJHL.”
To whom it may concern,
Saturday April 21, 2012 the Soo Thunderbirds of the NOJHL made team history and captured the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The team returned home to Sault Ste Marie the following day and 5 days later I was suspended for one year by the NOJHL and Hockey Canada.
The decision was handed down by the commissioner of the league without discussing one single event with myself at anytime.
At that time I was very disappointed with the ruling and the publicity the news created the following weeks and months.
From the time the decision came down from the league, the Soo Thunderbirds at no time came to my defense publicly, and immediately severed ties with me despite privately stating that they did not agree with the decision.
The owner of the team Albert Giommi was very adamant in emails that I fight this decision and state my case to the league.
Mr. Giommi made it very clear to one local journalist how unfairly I had been treated and privately once again through emails made it clear that once the season was officially over he would attempt to clear my name and bring to light the facts.
This failed to happen and as a result of the public humiliation my life has not been the same.
Since the suspension myself and family have been publicly humiliated in the newspapers, internet sites and blogs.
I have lost my job that I held for almost 7 years and have had difficulty finding new employment.
A local high school team refused to allow me to coach despite them not being affiliated with Hockey Canada thus making the suspension invalid at that level because they were concerned how it would appear if they did hire me.
Basically as stated my life has been altered negatively and the following reflections on the past season will make it clear that an injustice has been served.
While the league never made it clear why I was suspended only saying it was for 'conduct detrimental to the league' there were a couple events that were investigated by a 3rd party during the playoff run of the team.
The events were an evening in Soo, Michigan in which a player was arrested for possession of a banned substance, alcohol on a team bus during the season, and alcohol on the team bus following the Dudley Hewitt victory in Thunder Bay.
Up 3-0 vs. the Soo Eagles in the semi finals of the NOJHL, we had a morning skate at the Essar Center to prepare for the game later that evening.
The Eagles were our biggest rival and the players were very excited at the opportunity to sweep the team and move on to the finals. While finishing up at the rink I overheard one of the players discussing plans following the game to remain in Soo, Michigan if the team won and to celebrate.
Upon returning to my house I brought the issue up with our Head Coach Preston and made it clear I was against this and worried they could get in trouble if they stayed. He thought the team would be fine and nothing would happen.
Well now we know of course that the team won, the team stayed for the most part in Soo, Michigan that night and unfortunately there were some actions by a player that lead to his arrest.
There were no plans put in place by management or ownership following the game for the team and yet once the investigation took place the coaching staff took most of the blame for this incident while I was the only person on staff who at least tried to voice my concerns.
The player was charged which was very unfortunate and was suspended for 8 games by the NOJHL. The team management decided that they would buy back half of the suspension and therefore the player served only 4 games and did not have to serve anything more imposed by the team despite the serious charges.
The next incident investigated was following the game in North Bay in February when the team captured the regular season NOJHL title.
Some of the parents asked if they could purchase a couple cases of beer for their kids if they won and this was permitted by the Head Coach.
The beer was allowed on the bus following the game, only a couple of cases from what I recall and we returned home.
Following the semi final win at the Dudley Hewitt in Thunder Bay I approached the assistant GM and voiced my concern for the players following the finals Saturday night.
I knew if it was the last game of our season the players, of whom more than half were over the legal drinking age, would be a handful to say the least.
I also thought if we won they would want to celebrate and after the earlier events in Soo, Mich and the investigation I knew we had all eyes on us.
Because of this and the earlier events I tried to be pro-active and provide a solution.
These concerns were expressed by the assistant GM and myself that night to our general manager and his answer was 'the kids are going to go back to the hotel and do nothing' because of the events.
Well for those who have tried to manage young men whether in hockey or the workplace I knew that answer was not the solution to the potential problems that night.
The team had worked incredibly hard and I don't know of any jr hockey team in the world that would expect their players to sit in their respective hotel rooms following a championship win at such a high level.
The next afternoon, while trying to prepare for the biggest game in team history I was really concerned what could happen to the team and our players win or lose that night.
As a result I called our owner Mr Giommi and voiced my concerns and he agreed and let me know he would work on a plan.
Later on that evening just before our warm up Mr Giommi asked me to ask the players to have their parents meet him prior to the game.
While I was not at the meeting obviously preparing for the game it is my understanding the team and parents agreed to have a ball room or banquet room at the hotel to celebrate following the game and the players would be released to their parents that evening and the staff would not be permitted to be with them.
Of course the team won and they players returned to the hotel and the staff stayed away all without incident largely because of the plan we had set out prior.
The following morning the bus was loaded and we began to return to SSM.
It was obvious to everyone on staff who sat at the front of the bus that they players had been drinking late into the night and had continued during the ride home.
At no time did myself, the other assistant or the assistant GM do anything to stop this.
There were clearly some inappropriate things going on at the back of the bus that we could notice and unfortunately failed to acknowledge because the head coach was back there with them.
After lunch and about 3-4 hours on the bus I went to the back and had one beer with the older players on the team.
While it was never clearly communicated to me it is for this reason I assume as to why I received a one year suspension while the other staff members received no punishment other than the head coach who was back there with the players for the majority of the trip.
As an assistant coach I guess the decision to suspend me means I should have stopped the wrongful actions rather than the Head Coach and Assistant GM who were on the bus.
The point of this almost 5 months later is twofold.
Firstly I believe as an assistant coach I went above and beyond my responsibilities by trying to avoid the night in Michigan and helping institute a plan, following the Dudley Hewitt victory.
Not one member of management did anything to help avoid these situations and placed all the blame on the coaching staff while taking no responsibility.
Secondly, after being front page news and facing public humaliation the team totally left me to defend myself despite privately stating their intent to help me and re gain my reputation.
There were promises made to me and now 5 months later after missing out on the RBC Cup, after losing my job, still there has been no communication by the team towards me.
From the start of this investigation I never wanted to make myself look better by bringing down others involved in incidents throughout the season.
The facts are clear and the facts are I was someone who tried to avoid situations and tried to take care of the players best interests.
There was absolutely nothing I did on any of those bus rides that had not been done by every other staff member who had been on those buses and yet I was the one who faced the suspension while several staff remain with the team, staff who had not tried to help out the way I had during the season.
For me this is about a league that failed to discuss with the head coach the actions on the bus ride home from the Dudley and yet handed down suspensions to both of us.
This is about other staff members who failed to stand up for me and voice their displeasure with the decision and about ownership and management who did nothing to prevent any of this and totally left me to answer for all of this. Did I deserve a year suspension for having one beer following a Dudley Hewitt victory?
I was honest during the investigation and if you asked the 200 or so jr hockey teams who play in this country surely I'm not the only coach to have done so.
If it was determined that my suspension was for this reason at the end of the day I can accept that although I certainly would wonder why other staff members would not face the same punishment given the number of times they consumed alcohol on the bus the past two seasons.
If it is for not putting a stop to the incidents on the bus ride from Thunder Bay once again I would wonder why the other coach and assistant GM would not face the same punishment.
If it was a result of all of the incidents is it not clear that I more than anyone on staff was trying to avoid these types of situations and yet faced the punishment while ownership or management faced none.
This is about the embarrassment this incident has caused me and my family, the loss of my employment and potentially the inability to coach again in this city, something I have a huge passion for.
This is more than anything about the owner of the team saying one thing privately and yet publicly refusing to acknowledge that this decision was not deserved and should have been overturned until at least more facts came to light.
I missed a chance of a lifetime attending the RBC Cup with the team, I had my name smeared in the local papers and on internet sites and have lost my employment, all along with most of the same staff remain in place today to enjoy what we worked so hard to bring to the city, a Dudley Hewitt Championship last April.
In this city in the past 12 months I have read about a coach from a major jr hockey team who assaulted a young man here in town only to get charged yet no further actions from Hockey Canada or the CHL were imposed.
I have read about 3 young men charged with sexual assault who play for a major jr hockey team in the CHL who were able to return to the team 10 days after the events took place.
As an assistant coach I did not share the same responsibility that the GM, Ass. GM and Head Coach shared yet I received a full year suspension for having a beer on a bus after winning a Championship.
For two years I have the Soo Thunderbirds countless hours of volunteer work while doing anything I could to help the team in all areas I could.
When I needed the team to return the same efforts to me they were unable to defend me when I needed it the most while basking in the glow of a championship season.
Following the decision the Head Coach tried to reach out to the league to defend me and take responsibility with no response from the league.
We were being swept under the carpet as they say and have been left to deal with the consequences.
It's time for justice to be served!
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