Portland’s got hockey

Well, friends, the news finally came down that the NHL season is officially a wash. No Wings, no Flyers, no Stanley Cup – one of the world’s great championship tourneys – nothing.

But all is not lost. Especially not here in Portland, where we are blessed to have one of the best minor-league hockey teams in North America, the Portland Winter Hawks. They play right here in Memorial Coliseum or the Rose Garden, and, as their website (www.winterhawks.com) says, it’s fast, furious fun! If you don’t yet know about the ‘Hawks, or just want to fire yourself up for the next game, read on.

The Winter Hawks, founded in 1976, were the first U.S.-based franchise in the Western Hockey League, a Canadian junior league. The WHL arose from the ashes of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, at an event on June 21, 1966 that came to be called the Clear Lake Massacre.

That year, owners of SJHL franchises held their annual meeting in the resort town of Wasagaming, Manitoba, to discuss plans to revitalize junior hockey in western Canada. They were frustrated with what they saw as lack of support from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, and the moribund business practices of some of the owners in their group. Ernie McLean, junior hockey legend, was there.

"We were getting very disgusted with the CAHA. We weren’t getting any help from them and they were taking a percentage all the time off the gates in the playoffs. At that time, the CAHA was bringing in any team that they thought could come into the league. They would apply and we were supposed to look after them. Melville was in, Yorkton was coming in," McLean said.

"So at Clear Lake … it was really funny. In those days, you had to pay up your dues or you couldn’t vote, you never had a vote. As it happened, (SJHL president) Frank Boucher was the chairman. He called the meeting to order in Clear Lake. Then Boucher asked Munro, one of the owners present, for a check."

"Scotty said, ‘I can’t afford to pay,’" McLean recalled. "They said, ‘Well, Mr. Munro, you can’t vote.’ They asked Bill Hunter for his check and he said, ‘I haven’t got one.’ They said, ‘Well, you can’t vote.’ It went around the table like that. All of a sudden they said, ‘Well, I guess we have no meeting.’ And Frank says, ‘I guess we haven’t.’ At that point in time, the guys got up from the table and walked across to another room in the hotel and formed a new league."

Thus was born the WHL.

Fast-forward 10 years. The healthy young league decided to move south, and Portland, at that time an up-and-coming sports town (the Blazers were founded in 1970 and PDX was awash in Blazermania by ’76), seemed like a good choice. The new team would have a good chance to flourish, as it wouldn’t be in the shadows of an established MLB or NFL franchise.

The start was a rough one. The Winter Hawks lost their first seven games, all on the road. Their coach, Ken Hodge, wasn’t even at those games, having been suspended for getting in a fight. But upon their return, they began building a solid, passionate fan base. That didn’t necessarily mollify the homesick Canadians, who were restless and tired of losing.

Many spoke of returning home, and one, Doug Lecuyer, actually did so. He was the team’s best player and scored a hat trick in the ‘Hawks home debut (later he rethought the decision and was traded back to Portland) in front of just under 4,000 new fans.

In those days the team captain was Brent Peterson, who later played 11 seasons in the NHL and eventually came back to coach the Winter Hawks to the Memorial Cup Championship in 1998.

"It was quite a tough go to start with. We started on the road and no one even knew about Portland’s fans, the Coliseum, or anything. But, we hung in there and the fans were great right off the bat. Even though there weren’t as many then, they were loud and supportive. The guys liked playing in Portland a lot and by the end of the season, we had a pretty good team," Lecuyer said.

The team’s first GM was Brian Shaw. He knew that to sell hockey in a non-hockey town, he’d need a tough, fearless bunch. In those days Portland was much more blue-collar, and the big, lantern-jawed ‘Hawks began to make fast friends in the community. Speaking to the WHL owners in 1977, Shaw said, "We’re selling the all-American-boy image. Our players are all properly dressed in public. They all have respectable hair lengths. We feel image is important. Our players have become our outstanding selling point, and they have actually played much better because of the great acceptance which now is blossoming in Portland."

But don’t be fooled. It was less about being well scrubbed and more about being hard. "We had the biggest team in hockey," said Shaw. "We had a rough team too. I remember the pre-game talk in the dressing room. Hodgie would say to the line of Turnbull, Hoyda and Elmer Ray, ‘you guys start … and Peterson and Babych get ready to kill the penalty.’"

That year the Winter Hawks bruised their way to a 36-29-7 record, eventually losing in the WHL semis to New Westminster. In the ensuing years they have remained strong, winning the Western Division pennant nine times, the WHL playoffs four times, and the prestigious unified inter-league championship, the Memorial Cup, twice, in 1981 and 1998.

Today, they are enjoying another fine season. They’ve won eight of their last 11 games, including their latest, a 7-2 rout of Red Deer. That victory was the first of a four-game home stand, so now is the perfect time to head down to the Coliseum to support our Winter Hawks. Tonight (Feb. 18) they face NW rivals Seattle, and Saturday they play Kelowna.

Both games are at Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $7 to just over $20, and are available on the Winter Hawks’ website, any Ticketmaster location or by calling 503-224-4400. In addition, there are two box offices, at the Rose Quarter in the Garden and Memorial Coliseum.