September 15th, 2010 | Published in Sports
|With crucial playoff experience under their belts, the Winterhawks should reward fans with speed, physicality and lots of wins this season.
Photo: Soobum Im/Portland Winterhawks
Brad Ross stepped off the ice at the Sherwood Ice Arena, his transition from Portland Winterhawk to Toronto Maple Leaf – at least for a few weeks of training camp – just hours away.
Ross, a left wing whose combination of scoring skill and snarl persuaded Toronto to draft him high in the second draft of the 2010 NHL entry draft, considered the expectations for the Winterhawks, who had climbed out of the abyss of three loss-filled seasons with an exciting two-round charge into the Western Hockey League playoffs.
“I’m sure the fans expect a lot from us,” Ross said. “Inside the room, we have a silent confidence to our game. We expect a lot from ourselves, and we just got to walk the walk.”
As impressive as the turnaround was on the ice, the Winterhawks served notice in June at the NHL draft: Eight Portland players were selected by the pros, including forwards Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, who were taken back-to-back with the fourth and fifth picks over all.
Hockey has returned to the city of roses and bridges and – a generation or two back – Rosebuds and Buckeroos. Though Portland hockey diehards suffered through the Winterhawks’ doormat years, they are sure to be joined this season by sports fans drawn by the spectacle of winning – and by legions of NHL scouts who have re-entered Portland on their travel itineraries.
“People come out and they want your team to be competitive and they appreciate talent,” said General Manager and Coach Mike Johnston, the former NHL assistant coach who has overseen the Winterhawks’ rejuvenation. “People who know the game appreciate the way they skate, they compete, the puck moves, they score. They want to have teams that can play an entertaining brand of hockey. So we’re pretty well-positioned now. It’s kind of exciting.”
Add speed to the tools of a big team that played a physical style last season.
“We’re pretty big on transition through the neutral zone and we have a lot of speed this year, so we’re going to use that for sure,” Ross said. “It’s just the experience of last year, making it to the second round, and the long season, the grind, what you have to do to prepare your body and stuff. We’re all a little bit older, so it should be really good.”
The Portland hockey tradition dates back to the Portland Rosebuds in 1914. (These days, the Winterhawks’ cheerleading dance team is known as the Rosebuds.) The Rosebuds drifted away by 1926, but were replaced by the Buckeroos, who skated off and on in various minor professional leagues between 1928 and 1941 (World War II), and 1960 and 1976, the year the Edmonton Oil Kings moved to Portland and became the Winterhawks of the major junior Western Hockey League.
Since their arrival in Portland, the Winterhawks have had 23 of their players taken in the first round of the NHL draft. Two of their players – Cam Neely and Mark Messier (whose father, Doug, spent six seasons as a Buckeroo) – were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
This season, The Hockey News has picked the Winterhawks to finish second in the WHL (to the Saskatoon Blades), and fourth among the 60 teams of the three-league Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization for the top level of junior hockey.
Team captain Brett Ponich, the towering 6-foot-7 defenseman, was headed to camp with the St. Louis Blues. Thirteen Winterhawks players would take part in NHL camps. Ponich saw the run on Portland players in the draft as another measure of their breakthrough season.
“Even the guys who got passed up in the past couple years were getting picked up this year,” Ponich said. “So we’re pretty excited about this year.”
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