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Monday, March 7, 2011

A sporting success story . . .

Travis Green (left) and Mike Johnston have helped turn the Portland Winerhawks
into a tremendous sports success story.

(Photo by Bryan Heim/Portland Winterhawks)

So . . . you’re thinking about purchasing a hockey team . . . perhaps a WHL franchise.
You could do worse to take a look at what has happened in Portland where the Winterhawks went from hockey’s hinterlands to near the top of the heap in less time than it takes for the WHL website to load on a good night.
There really aren’t words to describe what went on with the Winterhawks in the two or three seasons prior to the sale of the franchise to Calgary oilman Bill Gallacher.
The fact that the Winterhawks won 28 games over the last two seasons before the Gallacher Gang took over doesn’t tell nearly the whole story but it does speak volumes.
But the franchise that changed hands over the summer of 2008 has turned into one of the top clubs in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League.
The Winterhawks continue to work to solidify their spot on Portland’s sporting scene, but there can be no debating what has happened on the ice.
While the Winterhawks were stumbling through 17- and 11-victory seasons in 2006-07 and 2007-08, Gallacher, who owns a piece of the BCHL’s Nanaimo Clippers, was looking to expand his hockey holdings.
With his sights set on the Winterhawks, Gallacher hooked up with a couple of hockey people and searched out potential employees.
The plan was to get a front-office team, including hockey staff, in place and, should a sale happen, move it in when the deal closed.
By now it was early August 2008.
The priorities were a strength/conditioning coach and trainer, a head coach (possibly a general manager/head coach) and an equipment manager.
Mike Johnston had spent 2007-08 as an assistant coach under Marc Crawford with the Los Angeles Kings. The two also had been together with the Vancouver Canucks. However, the Kings had made a change and Crawford was gone, which meant there most certainly would be more changes coming to L.A.
Gallacher’s people sounded out Johnston, who had interviewed for the Kings’ head-coaching job, to see if he would be interested in a move should things not work out in L.A.
Terry Murray ended up with the Kings’ head-coaching job. Johnston started making plans to work as the general manager and head coach of a WHL team that hadn’t yet been sold.
“There were times we didn’t know it would happen,” Johnston admits.
By now, former WHL/NHL player Travis Green had signed on as assistant GM/assistant coach. And the Winterhawks had landed Rich Campbell as trainer and strength and conditioning guru. In terms of credibility, the Campbell signing was huge as he had experience with U.S. Olympians at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. He also had worked as head trainer with the NHL’s New York Islanders (1997-2006).
Johnston then took a look at the scouting staff.
He had played hockey for the Brandon University Bobcats, a program that includes Andy Murray among its alumni. Murray, a veteran of the coaching wars, both in North America and Europe, mentioned Garry Davidson, another former BU athlete who had been a fixture with BCHL franchises in Penticton, Nanaimo, Victoria, Trail and Salmon Arm.
Johnston knew Davidson and was able to bring him on board as director of player personnel. In fact, Johnston said when he first contacted Davidson “he was really excited.”
The Winterhawks also added Grant Armstrong, a veteran of Lower Mainland arenas in B.C., as head scout, and moved Matt Bardsley from director of player personnel to advance scout. Bardsley’s title has since been changed to director of hockey operations.
Remember that through a lot of this, there was no guarantee the sale would go through.
Johnston remembers attending the Winterhawks’ 2008 training camp and watching from the stands, wondering if he was looking at his future.
Along the way, Johnston, who has a long history with Hockey Canada, checked in with friends like Danny Flynn, the vice-president of hockey operations and head coach of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats, Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay, and Willie Desjardins, then the GM and head coach of the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The more Johnston talked to them the more he was certain he was in the process of doing the right thing.
And then, In September, word came that it was a done deal. When the deal closed and the WHL board of governors gave unanimous approval in mid-October, the change took place.
Johnston, who last had coached junior players at the World Junior Championship in 1994 and ’95, took over as GM from Ken Hodge, who had been the face of the franchise for a long time. Of the coaching staff, only Kyle Gustafson was retained. Among Gustafson’s responsibilities was education and billets, and Johnston felt he wanted to maintain continuity in those areas.
Besides, he said, “Gustafson is excellent.”
That first season was no hell, as the Winterhawks finished 19-48-5.
But, when he was sitting in the stands observing training camp, Johnston had noticed what he felt was an abundance of potential.
As he said, Hodge and Bardsley “get credit for the 1992s and 1993s.”
That includes forwards Ryan Johansen, Ty Rattie and Brad Ross, and defencemen Joe Morrow and Tyler Wotherspoon, and goaltender Keith Hamilton. They also took forward Riley Boychuk and defenceman Brett Ponich in the 2006 draft.
In the new group’s first bantam draft, the selections included defenceman Derrick Pouliot and forward Brandon Leipsic.
And, of course, Johnston has used his international contacts to land impact forwards Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi, both of whom are from Switzerland.
Which brings us to last season, when the Winterhawks took the CHL by storm. They went 44-23-5, their 93 points an increase of 48 points from the previous season. They finished fourth in the ultra-competitive U.S. Divsion, before going 6-7 in the playoffs where they lost out in a second-round series with Hay’s Giants.
By the time this season got here, the Portland roster included 11 players who had either been drafted or signed by NHL teams. Johansen was the fourth pick in the NHL’s 2010 draft; Niederreiter was taken with the very next pick. Six more Winterhawks were selected by draft’s end.
This season, no longer a novelty item able to sneak up on teams, the Winterhawks have been atop their division — and the Western Conference — for most of the season.
While all of this was going on, Gallacher brought in Doug Piper as president. He and his front-office staff are slowly making inroads. The team that once was the talk of the town certainly has become more than the whisper it was four or five years ago.
The Winterhawks’ payroll now includes 40 full-time employees -- more than triple the staff under the previous ownership. That includes the hockey staff, but also includes a sale department that features about a dozen employees.
The team they are selling to the people of Portland and area should finish this regular season having drawn more than 175,000 fans to their games. They will average about 5,000 fans per game. It ain’t the glory days, but things definitely are on the upswing.
As the regular-season schedule heads into its last two weeks, the Winterhawks have drawn back-to-back crowds of more than 10,000, and the average attendance since Feb. 1 is 7,922.
They are well on the way to turning their games into events, with marketing and promotions.
"If you put it in one word, this team had lost all relevance in the marketplace,” Piper told writer Jim Beseda earlier this year for a story that appeared in The Oregonian. “What we were just trying to do is find different avenues by which we could slowly rebuild that relevance so that people would pay attention to us again."
The Winterhawks also have plans for Memorial Coliseum.
As Beseda wrote: “Piper said the Winterhawks also are in talks with city officials, the Trail Blazers and the Portland Development Commission about renovating Memorial Coliseum. Improvements could include a high-definition video scoreboard, as well as replacing all the seats and reducing the building's capacity for hockey from 10,407 to about 7,500.”
Piper also told Beseda that the Winterhaws, with a lease that will expire in two years, are in negotiations for a new agreement.
Yes, it’s fair to say that the Winterhawks are back, in no small part thanks to what obviously was a great plan.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the Portland Winterhawks are greatly exaggerated.

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