Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

You'll have to excuse the thousands of Portland Winterhawks fans who will be rubbing their eyes Friday night at the Rose Garden. They're just wondering if their sight is deceiving them, or if the franchise that was on the brink of collapse three years ago really is playing for a Western Hockey League championship.

With the number of NHL draftees on the roster and the way the Winterhawks raced out to a big lead in the Western Conference early in the season, it's not particularly surprising to outside observers that Portland is on the brink of its first Memorial Cup trip since 1998.

Still, there's a sense of shock in Portland that this team has turned around its fortunes so quickly. By the end of the 2007-08 season, when the Hawks won 11 games on the ice and were rumored to be in financial ruin off of it, all but the most hardcore fans had given up on the franchise.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison told the Oregonian in 2010:

"We were at risk of losing the franchise," WHL commissioner Ron Robison said last month. "We had to embark on a rescue operation."

An audit of the team's business and hockey operations conducted in early 2008 revealed a change of ownership was necessary, Robison said. And, he added, "It needed to change quickly." (The Oregonian)

It did change quickly. A group headed by New York businessman Jim Goldsmith, which bought the team in 2006 with big ideas about marketing but little hockey expertise, had worn out its welcome and reportedly run a team with a 30-year history of excellence into the ground within two years.

Calgary billionaire Bill Gallacher swooped in and became the savior of junior hockey in Portland. And the October 2008 sale couldn't have come at a better time, as highlighted in this story from a couple weeks ago by Oregon Live's Dylan Bumbarger:

We know now that the WHL decided in February 2009 that they wanted Victoria. We know now what lengths they would go to get Victoria. Chilliwack is nowhere near a dire situation. It's just about convenience; their owners could be convinced to pull out and other teams in more trouble aren't ready to pull the plug.

Portland was in much worse shape, as has been well documented. Bill Gallacher bought the Winterhawks in October 2008, and was in negotiations a few months before that. Today I'm amazed at how tight the timeline is. If the WHL makes its mind up a few months earlier, if the Three J's try to hang on a little longer, if something happens that ties up Gallacher (like, oh, I don't know...the economy?), it very well could have been us selling out and heading to the island. (Oregon Live)

Instead, the 2010-11 version of the Winterhawks are 50-game winners and Western Conference champs.

It would be easy to dismiss the Hawks as a club that simply hoarded top talent through high draft picks resulting from the three miserable seasons. But doing so ignores the transformation the organization has made from the top down over the last two seasons, as Gregg Drinnan examined in an excellent piece in March.

Gallacher hired a staff laden with pro experience. Team president Doug Piper has worked with the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers. Head coach and GM Mike Johnston came from an assistant job with the Los Angeles Kings. Assistant coach Travis Green starred in the WHL then played in the NHL for years. Trainer and strength/conditioning coach Rich Campbell spent a decade as head trainer for the New York Islanders.

Just as importantly, the new faces identified that some folks within the old regime were worth keeping around. Current director of hockey operations Matt Bardsley, who's been with the organization for more than a decade, gets little public credit for soldiering on through the rough years and for his role in the drafting and recruiting of many players that form the current core of the club. Longtime owner and general manager Ken Hodge, whom Johnston credits along with Bardsley for the Hawks' 1992 and 1993-born players, has assumed an advisory role and still attends nearly every game.

The hockey personnel used a combination of good draft position and savvy moves to build the current roster. Players like Ty Rattie, Brad Ross and Nino Niederreiter came as the result of high draft picks, but others, like Ryan Johansen (a seventh-round draft pick) have been diamonds in the rough. Key defensemen Taylor Aronson and William Wrenn were undrafted listees. Goalie Mac Carruth was plucked from the NAHL last season. Another listed player, Spencer Bennett, was the key piece in a trade for veteran forward Craig Cunningham. The Hawks traded two players on the lower half of the depth chart last season for star defenseman Luca Sbisa and a high import draft pick that turned out to be Sven Bartschi, who led WHL rookies in scoring.

Despite the remarkable resurgence, the Winterhawks are still trying to carve out a niche in Portland's increasingly complex sports landscape. The NBA's Trail Blazers, despite recently extending their drought of playoff series wins to 11 years, still reign supreme in the market. But, without the Blazers' influence and money, the Winterhawks wouldn't have the opportunity to play all their home postseason games at the Rose Garden, a true NHL-quality arena (even if the lease arrangement with the Blazers isn't particularly advantageous for the Hawks).

The Hawks also have to contend with the popularity of college football in the Pacific Northwest, as the Oregon Ducks dominated the local sports conscience in the fall on the way to BCS championship game. The Winterhawks capitalized on the Ducks' popularity (and the disdain for the Ducks by rival Oregon State) with a promotion that encouraged fans to wear the colors of their favorite school to a game in January.

Throw in a the new Portland Timbers Major League Soccer franchise, which draws nearly 19,000 fans a game, and even the Oregon State college baseball team, which is ranked in the top five in the NCAA, and it's hard to stand out in the crowd.

Still, the Winterhawks have managed to rebuild their fanbase over time. They aren't yet approaching the glory days of 1997-98, when the team averaged more than 8,500 fans on the way to a Memorial Cup title, but average regular season attendance is up 53% over the last two seasons since reaching a 30-year low of 3,648 per game in 2008-09. Portland's drawing 7,493 fans on average in the playoffs this year.

So if you see a Winterhawks fan flying high this week with the thrill of getting to see May hockey, don't pinch them. They're not dreaming, but even if they were, they surely won't want to wake up.

Scott Sepich is a WHL correspondent for Buzzing the Net. He can be reached at (Photo: Colin Mulvaney, The Spokesman-Review)

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