PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Winterhawks are the team the rest of the Western Hockey League loves to hate. Success breeds jealousy and envy, and the Winterhawks have been incredibly successful. On Saturday night the defending Western Hockey League champions opened their fourth consecutive league final.
Often referred to as the "Evil Empire" or the "Cheaterhawks," their haters are legion. But less than a decade ago there was little animosity because the rest of the WHL was too busy laughing.
From 2006-2008 they won a total of 28 games. They were dreadful on the ice and disorganized off it. At one point, the team had some 10 employees working on both hockey and the business. Things became so bad that then general manager Ken Hodge, a former owner who had helped bring the team to Portland, and lone scout Matt Bardsley would pay out of their own pockets to scout players at tournaments.
“We would drive to Calgary, do a tournament, drive back home and then three days later get back into the car and drive back to Calgary or wherever we needed to go because at that time it was a little bit cheaper to drive,” said Bardsley, who is now the team's assistant GM. “It was exhausting, but in those long drives I learned a lot from Ken.
“It was tough because you’re thinking, ‘OK, so this is how it is?’ You’re basically paying to work.”
When it came time to draft players, Bardsley said they didn’t even bother talking to players or their parents. Word had already spread about the sad state of the franchise and Bardsley and Hodge didn’t want their decisions influenced by the threat of a player not reporting.
“It was definitely a shoestring budget,” said Winterhawks assistant coach Kyle Gustafson, who joined the team 10 years ago. “Your scouts are the lifeline of your team — and that was Matt and Ken, just the two of them. How are you going to find players in Podunk, Minnesota when you have to pay for your trip to Calgary and stay at the local Motel 6? It’s so different now.”
“At some point it was going to get better,” added Bardsley. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
It got better once Calgary billionaire Bill Gallacher saved the team from potentially folding or moving to another city. His first move, in October of 2008, was to hire former Los Angeles Kings associate coach Mike Johnston – who had recently lost his job – to bring some semblance of order to the chaos in Portland. Hodge, a WHL fixture and one of the league's most successful coaches, was also kept on as a consultant, a role he still fills.
It might sound strange, but the first thing Johnston did as the newly hired coach and general manager of the team was to look at the schooling and health care the players were receiving.
“Not a lot of our college guys were passing and some guys weren’t even going to school,” said Johnston of those early days. “So we made sure everyone was going to school. Then we made sure our medical care – which was important to the Canadians who came down here to play – was partnered with the (NBA's) Trail Blazers.”
The moves were also designed to build better relationships with both the community at-large and with businesses in the area. Most importantly, it was designed to allay the fears of parents hesitant to send their sons off to a foreign place with a poor reputation.
“I looked at it and said, ‘If I was sending my son to Portland, what would I be worried about?’ For me that was schooling and medical care,” said Johnston. “The third one would be billets, so we put one of our billets as a coordinator and made sure we did all the interviews and went around to all the homes and put a coach in charge of that as well.
“You might think that I would talk a lot about hockey as to how we started this, but it wasn't a lot about hockey – it was more about the environment," said the 57-year-old. "I knew if we could get the environment tidied up we had a chance to do things hockey-wise because we had good hockey people, but the environment wasn't good.”
In the early days, Johnston admits he often wondered what he'd gotten himself into trying to turnaround the moribund franchise. It wasn't a quick fix and there were still many losing nights.
“If you look at our record I think we won 19 games,” said Johnston of the 2008-09 season. “The team had won two before we got there, so that left us with 17 wins on the year. There were definite challenges.”
It wasn't until Johnston's second season in 2009-10 that things began to slowly change. That year the team went 44-25-2-1 and made the second round of the playoffs. The following year they made it to the WHL finals and haven't looked back since.
A career coach, Johnston got his first full-time appointment at 23, straight out of university because he couldn't find a teaching job. He was a perfect fit at Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta because the job also required someone who could teach and oversee the residence.
“I had no coaching experience but I fit the bill on the other two parts,” said Johnston. “They wanted someone young because their program had fallen on some hard times – the Alberta College league hadn't been doing very well – so took the job.”
He was there for five years and by season four the team had made it to the national semifinal. Reclamation projects, it seems, are in Johnston's wheelhouse. Since taking over in Portland the Winterhawks have gone from laughingstock to perennial powerhouse – but not without controversy.
Last season the WHL sanctioned the Winterhawks for violating the league's rules on player benefits. The team was fined a record $200,000 and lost four first round picks from 2014-17. In addition, Johnston was suspended from all his duties with the club for almost an entire year.
For many in the league, it was a final confirmation that Portland’s success had come through underhanded means. For others it was a witch hunt over incidentals like paying for plane tickets for parents and the team captain's cell phone.
Johnston said it was difficult to watch the team he had painstakingly built from the bottom win without him.
“It’s challenging when you're away from it because you've been in it for so long,” said Johnston. “You just enjoy being involved with the kids and you enjoy being involved with the team.”
At the moment he says comfortable in Portland, though he hasn't ruled out making a return to the NHL at some point.
“Everybody would love to coach in the NHL for sure,” said the native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “But I've also enjoyed coaching here in the Western league so whatever happens, happens. I'm really enjoying where I'm at.”
The team is enjoying having him behind the bench as well.
“Having him back has been huge for us,” said Winterhawks star forward Nic Petan. “He makes the right decisions out there on the ice and I think we’ve done a great job executing his plan. Everything goes through him and he's got a lot of experience.”
After winning the WHL title last year, the Winterhawks made it to the final of the Memorial Cup before being beaten by the QMJHL champion Halifax Mooseheads. One week after the tournament came to a close, Johnston was already talking to his staff about how to be better for next season.
“Some people were saying, but it was only one game – we just happened to lose one game – we were basically one of the best,” said Bardsley. “No. We have to be better, but that’s Mike for you, he knows you can always be better.”
It was that kind of attitude that helped bring the drifting the Winterhawks back on course in Portland. The team is playing in front of sellout crowds and city is once again hyped about another potential championship in Portland – a testament to how far the team has come.
“You would wear a Winterhawks shirt walking down the street and not a lot of people would recognize you,” said Gustafson, who like Bardsley is a native of Portland. “Now I see a lot of hats and T-shirts whenever I go running downtown, so in that respect it's been really, really cool.
“It's exciting to see that people know the Portland Winterhawks.”