PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Hit with unprecedented penalties by the Western Hockey League back in November, the Portland Winterhawks not only prevailed, they won the junior hockey league’s championship.
“We could have used it as an excuse to wipe away the season,” Dallas Stars prospect Taylor Peters said of the sanctions, which included the suspension of the team’s head coach for the balance of the season. “But we used it as fuel.”
The Winterhawks claimed the Ed Chynoweth Cup with a 5-1 Game 6 victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings on Sunday. Ty Rattie had a hat trick in the deciding win.
On Tuesday, thousands of fans came out as the city celebrated the title with a noontime rally. Many supporters sported T-shirts reading “Portland Strikes Back.”
The championship — and the cheers — were sweet revenge for the Winterhawks, who in November got hit with stiff penalties by the league for player-benefit violations. The WHL took away several draft picks and fined the team $200,000, in addition to suspending Winterhawks coach and general manager Mike Johnston for the rest of this season.
The Winterhawks acknowledged some of the league’s findings, which included:
—Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights two-to-four times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland.
—Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen.
—The Winterhawks provided a cellphone for their team captain for a period of three seasons.
The WHL found no violations involving monetary payments made to players, their families or agents, or any violations related to the league’s educational packages, the team said.
What the Winterhawks took issue with was the severity of the penalties, including Johnston’s banishment.
“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” Johnston said in a statement at the time.
Johnston wasn’t allowed contact with the team during the season, but he was granted permission from the league to meet the Winterhawks on Sunday night when they landed in Portland after winning the championship. Some 1,000 fans greeted the plane along with him.
The outpouring is not unusual for Portland, which is known for its fervent support of both the NBA’s Trail Blazers and Major League Soccer’s Timbers. The Winterhawks, many of whom are teenagers prepping for the NHL, were drawing 10,000 fans down the stretch for games played at the Rose Garden Arena.
“It’s like your kids, when you step back and see them do really good things,” Johnston said. “You can’t help but be proud.”
He was also with the team on Tuesday for the rally in Portland’s downtown Pioneer Courthouse Square. When he stood to speak, a fan shouted “Coach of the Year!”
Assistant general manager and assistant coach Travis Green assumed Johnston’s duties on an interim basis after the penalties were handed down and the Winterhawks finished with a franchise-best 57 wins in their 72 total games.
“Just having him around and able to enjoy this with the rest of us is important,” Green said about Johnston.
Portland had been to the WHL finals in each of the past two seasons but failed to come away with the trophy until this season. The Winterhawks last won the league’s championship in the 1997-98 season.
With the WHL title, the Winterhawks advanced to the Memorial Cup later this month. The four-team event is played between three Canadian Hockey League champions and host Saskatoon.
“Hopefully in two weeks we’ll be back with another trophy,” Rattie, a St. Louis Blues prospect, told the cheering crowd.
To which fan Beth Snider commented: “How can you not love these kids?”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
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