It was November 2008, and the Winterhawks were ready to start the long climb from rock bottom.
Ownership of Portland’s Western Hockey League major junior franchise had just changed hands, from the bumbling triumvirate of Jim Goldsmith, Jack Donovan and John Bryant to Calgary oilman Bill Gallacher. President Doug Piper and general manager/coach Mike Johnston had been handed the keys to the WHL’s most sorry organization, which had finished with a league-worst 11-58-2-1 record the previous season.
The reclamation project was daunting.
Piper, who had once worked for the NBA Trail Blazers and had experience in the front office with NHL teams Edmonton and Carolina, surveyed the situation and shook his head.
“The most difficult situation I’d ever walked into,” Piper says.
Little more than four years later, the Winterhawks are the standard by which other WHL franchises are compared. Portland, which won the Scotty Munro Trophy for the best record in the league during the regular season, is in the midst of its third straight WHL finals.
If the Hawks defeat Eastern Conference champion Edmonton in their best-of-seven-game series, they will advance to the Memorial Cup — emblematic of major junior hockey supremacy in North America — for the fourth time in the franchise’s 37-year history.
The Winterhawks have fashioned good teams through much of their time in Portland, winning the Memorial Cup in 1997-98 and reaching the WHL finals as recently as the 2000-01 campaign.
They were still competitive enough to reach the second round of the playoffs in 2005-06, the season before long-time coach and general manager Ken Hodge and his ownership group sold their controlling interest to outside investors Goldsmith (New York), Donovan (Phoenix) and Bryant (Dallas).
The fall in two years was fast and furious.
Nowhere to go but up
Gallacher’s purchase was completed just as the 2008-09 season was beginning. Average attendance for home games at the Coliseum and Rose Garden — as high as 8,500 a decade earlier — had fallen to 4,460 the previous season. The Winterhawks were no longer a respected piece of the Portland sports scene and were considered a laughingstock throughout the league.
The club’s Memorial Coliseum office space was a mess. The staff had only 10 employees, including
coaches. Nobody was working in ticket sales. Nobody in game operations. Creditors were pounding the doors asking for payments of old bills. The WHL was investigating the Hawks’ failure to live up to the team education fund promises. Billets for the players were unhappy. Several players were thinking of leaving the team.
“Every imaginable problem had befallen us,” Piper says.
What tickets the Hawks were selling weren’t netting much profit.
“We had a $4.25 surcharge in the building, and tickets were selling for $5,” says Ken Stickney, president of Avenir Sports Entertainment and Gallacher’s right-hand man in terms of sports properties. “I looked at those ticket reports and said, ‘Do you realize we net 75 cents? We can’t make it on that.’
“I was shocked at how bad things were. I’d seen it before Bill closed the deal, but you don’t realize how bad it is until you’re in it. (The previous owners) had cut everything to the bone. They weren’t spending any money on advertising. There was no staff. The office was a mess. It’s a Taj Mahal now compared to what it was then.”
The Hawks were dividing home games between the outdated coliseum and the modern, much larger Rose Garden.
“But the Trail Blazers were a little reluctant to still have us play at the Rose Garden, because we weren’t drawing enough for them to turn the lights on for us over there,” Piper says.
Hodge was invested emotionally as well as financially when he sold the club to Goldsmith, Donovan and Bryant. Hodge was the Hawks’ coach from the time the franchise moved from Edmonton to the City of Roses in 1976 until 1993 and continued to serve as general manager until the sale in 2006.
To say Hodge was caught off-guard by the way the new owners ran the club would be an understatement.
“How they behaved after the purchase was different from what they presented prior to the purchase,” says Hodge, who continues to work with the Hawks as a consultant. “They talked about promotion and putting some dollars and energy into the team.
“It turned out that it was just the opposite of that. They cut corners, cut personnel, cut salaries. It was shockingly different than what they suggested they would do.”
Gallacher and Stickney made the key hiring of Johnston, who arrived after nine years serving as an associate head coach in the NHL — the first seven in Vancouver, the last two in Los Angeles. Johnson had extensive experience coaching Canada’s national teams at the international level, helping them to a pair of titles in the World Hockey Championships.
Johnston took a careful look at the organization and the situation it was in before accepting the job.
“The biggest incentive was having an interested, motivated owner who cared about the team and was a hockey guy,” Johnston says. “That was critical in change from the ownership that had been here.”
Johnston knew the franchise had done well on the ice and at the gate during prior regimes.
“In this business, you’re motivated by challenges,” he says. “This was an enormous challenge. But you look at the pieces — the building, the city, the history — there were a lot of attractive parts that weren’t translating into success.”
Johnston researched the team’s operations and determined the mistakes that were being made in terms of players’ schooling, medical care and billet arrangements, among others.
“It wasn’t necessarily throwing money at everything,” Johnston says. “It was using a different approach. They weren’t hurdles so big that we couldn’t overcome them.”
Johnston hired NHL veteran Travis Green, who had played for him on two Canadian squads in the world championships, as his chief assistant coach. They found that the cupboard of talent wasn’t bare, thanks to the work done by Hodge and Matt Bardsley, the latter now the team’s director of hockey operations.
“They had two great drafts, which included players such as Ryan Johansen, Brad Ross, Joe Morrow, Troy Rutkowski, Taylor Peters, Tyler Wotherspoon and Ty Rattie,” Johnston says. “They had all of them signed except Johansen. I credit Ken for holding the franchise together and giving us pieces to work with when we started. Ken and Matt did an incredible job during some tough years so we could get going faster.”
As Johnston and Green were putting together the team, Piper set to work shoring up the business side.
Johnston says one of Piper’s major contributions was in helping make Winterhawk games a more enjoyable event for the fans.
“I remember my first game, standing behind the bench and looking at a lot of empty seats, the way things were being run,” Johnston says. “There was zero atmosphere in the building, and we couldn’t get anybody in the media interested in us, either.
“Doug has done a remarkable job with all of that. He has taken the game atmosphere and the marketing side to such a high level. It’s well beyond what other teams in our league are doing.”
Turnaround takes hold
Portland was only 19-48-3-2 in its first season under Johnston, but the foundation was being laid. Ticket sales and game operations staffs were hired. The scouting department was increased threefold.
The Hawks made a quantum leap in Johnston’s second season, 2009-10, going 44-25-2-1 and reaching the second round of the playoffs. The next season they made it to the WHL finals to begin a three-year run at the league championship.
They began this season as one of the league’s favorites and ended it as the top-rated team in all of junior hockey, including those in the Quebec and Ontario leagues. They mowed through the opposition to the WHL finals again, despite unprecedented sanctions administered by WHL Commissioner Ron Robison as the season began.
Penalized for alleged improprieties in player benefits — including flights provided for family members, cell phone bills covered for team captains and off-season training sessions — the Hawks were hit with a WHL-record $200,000 fine. Johnston was suspended for the rest of the season and the club was docked nine future draft picks, including the first five this season.
The Hawks’ ownership and management teams were stunned at the severity of the sanctions, which seemed to be debilitating to the future of a franchise that had been all but raised from the dead in four short years.
They are crying anything but uncle, however.
Undeterred by sanctions
Green took over as the team’s interim coach and guided the Hawks to a franchise-best regular-season record.
Johnston’s suspension is up at the end of the season, “so we’re through one part of it — the Johnston part,” Stickney says. “Thank goodness we have had Travis Green. He did better than anyone or the league thought he would. Check that box.”
In the 2013 bantam player draft, beginning with their first pick in the sixth round, the Hawks chose several players they feel can help them down the road. Stickney says the first player chosen was No. 30 on the club’s draft list, meaning he would be of the ilk of a late second-round pick.
Hodge, too, believes the Hawks can overcome the severe sanctions.
“We’ll have a strong nucleus of players returning next season,” he says. “Mike is an excellent recruiter, a strong presenter, and the recent history of success is going to make it even easier for him.”
One thing the Hawks have done is tap the U.S. market for players. Ten players on the roster are from U.S. cities, including goaltenders Mac Carruth and Brendan Burke, defensemen Seth Jones and Josh Hansen and forwards Paul Bittner, Chase De Leo, Keegan Iverson, Alex Schoenborn and Dominic Turgeon. Jones is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft.
“Bittner, Iverson and Turgeon are the quality of first-round draft picks, too,” Hodge says.
“The sanctions are going to hurt them, but no one has the quality of a group of players out of the U.S. like the Winterhawks. I think they can maintain where they are by working hard in that area and continuing to do the great job they’ve done of recruiting.”
The largest previous fine levied against a WHL team is believed to be $5,000. Though Gallacher is a billionaire who can sustain the $200,000 fine, “it’s still a tremendous amount of money,” Stickney says.
“We’re going to battle through it, though,” he says. “We won’t be deterred. None of us walk around using sanctions as an excuse. Our goal is to win every year, on and off the ice. We’ve won three years in a row. We’re the youngest team in the league, and some people think next year will be our year.
“We’re not showing any signs of slowing down, and we don’t have any intention of doing that. If anything, it has driven us more to get to where we want to be.”
Back to black
The Hawks drew an average of 6,687 fans during the regular season and have upped that mark to 9,903 in the playoffs, going into Game 5 of the finals against Edmonton Friday night at the Rose Garden.
Total revenue for the 2007-08 season was about $1 million. That figure was $6 million this season, putting the Winterhawks in the black for the first time in the Gallacher era.
“It hasn’t been a financial windfall, but we’re running it the way you’re supposed to run it,” Stickney says. “We truly believe we have the best organization not only in the Western Hockey League but in the Canadian Hockey League.”
Hodge says: “Bill has put some very good people in place. He has allowed them to use their expertise to bring the Winterhawks back to where they were before.”
The Hawks will continue to divide games between the Rose Garden and Veterans Memorial Coliseum, though they remain in negotiations with the city about a $34 million coliseum remodeling project. The team has pledged $10 million to the project, with the rest proposed to come from loans and funding from the Portland Development Commission.
“Ninety-two percent of the deal is done,” Piper says. “We’re that close to finishing. The city is committed to doing this.”
Piper says that even though the City Council may consider the project at the end of May, the coliseum remodel — originally scheduled to be completed in time for next season — “has been delayed for a year, at least” and “it may even be longer.”
Even so, the renaissance of the Winterhawks seems firmly in place. Despite the WHL sanctions, the foundation is solid. Gallacher, Stickney, Piper and Johnston are committed to ensuring it remains that way.