Winterhawks season in review

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 

Winterhawks offseason highlights

• A new ice rink for Memorial Coliseum, expanded to NHL dimensions (which the Rose Garden has), is scheduled to be completed this summer.

• The CHL Import Draft, usually held in June. Portland has two openings for non-North American players, and -- barring trades -- is slated to draft 26th and 57th in the draft involving all three CHL leagues.

• The NHL Draft. Held June 22-23 in Pittsburgh. Defenseman Derrick Pouliot expected to be the first Winterhawk drafted this year. Pouliot was ranted No 12 among North American skaters in the final rankings by NHL Central Scouting. Also draft eligible this summer are defensemen Josh Hanson and Cody Castro, and forwards Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier, Taylor Peters, Joey Baker and Jason Trott.

• Winterhawks 2012-2013 training camp is scheduled to begin on Aug. 22.

PORTLAND — So very close.

That was the assessment Mike Johnston offered on Monday after his Winterhawks returned to Portland from Edmonton, where Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Oil Kings left his club one victory shy of a Western Hockey League title.

The Winterhawks general manager and head coach was, naturally, lamenting that his team came up short for a second consecutive season in the WHL finals. But Johnston also talked about how close the Winterhawks are to solidifying a winning tradition that can perpetuate itself for years to come.

While Edmonton earned praise for winning a championship only five seasons after joining the league as an expansion club, the Winterhawks’ rise is perhaps more impressive. When Johnston and his staff started with the Winterhawks in October of 2008, the team had been the worst in the league for consecutive seasons and was off to a 2-12 start.

That was less than four seasons ago.

“We came into (the Coliseum) for my first home game, and there were probably 800 people here,” Johnston recalled. “It was empty. It wasn’t a good feeling, and you wondered where we were heading as a franchise. To see what’s happened in the last year has been incredible. The fans feed off the players, and the players feed off these fans.”

After the Winterhawks’ run to the WHL finals last season, Johnston signed a new four-year contract. He said on Monday that the only opportunity that might pull him away from Portland right now is a head coaching job in the NHL. After all, Johnston, assistant coach and assistant GM Travis Green, and team president Doug Piper arrived in Portland with a five-year plan.

Johnston said his biggest disappointment on Sunday was that his team didn’t play very well in a critical Game 7. So very close.

That was the assessment Mike Johnston offered on Monday, after his Winterhawks returned to Portland from Edmonton, where Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Oil Kings left his club one victory shy of a Western Hockey league title.

The Winterhawks general manager and head coach was, naturally, lamenting that his team came up short for a second consecutive season in the WHL finals. But Johnston also talked about how close the Winterhawks are to solidifying a winning tradition that can perpetuate itself for years to come.

While Edmonton earned praise for winning a championship only five seasons after joining the league as an expansion club, the Winterhawks rise is perhaps more impressive. When Johnston and his staff started with the Winterhawks in October of 2008, the team had been the worst in the league for consecutive seasons and was off to a 2-12 start.

That was less than four seasons ago.

“We came into (the Coliseum) for my first home game, and there were probably 800 people here,” Johnston recalled. “It was empty. It wasn’t a good feeling, and you wondered where we were heading as a franchise.

“To see what’s happened in the last year has been incredible,” Johnston added. The fans feed off the players and the players feed off these fans.”

After the Winterhawks run to the WHL finals last season, Johnston signed a new four-year contract. He said on Monday that the only opportunity that might pull him away from Portland right now is a head coaching job in the NHL. After all, Johnston, assistant coach and assistant GM Travis Green, and team president Doug Piper arrived in Portland with a five-year plan.

Johnston said he was disappointed that his team didn’t play very well in a critical Game 7. Still, the franchise has reinvented itself and invigorated passion for hockey in Portland.

Players come to the WHL with dreams of developing into pro hockey players. The Winterhawks have done that. Along the way players such as Sven Bartschi, William Wrenn, Cam Reid and Oliver Gabriel -- who each played for the Winterhawks for the final time on Sunday -- have raised the bar for what it means to play for Portland.

“When players within the room expect to win, then usually good things happen. And I believe we’re getting close.” Johnston said. “If we can get another couple good years under our belt here, then I think we’ve got an organization at a level now where (success) just breeds from within.”

To keep the process going, Johnston said that in the coming weeks he and his staff will review every aspect of their program, looking for ways to improve so that their players have the best shot at success in the WHL and beyond.

“To keep our minds off of what’s happened, it’s good to get back to work,” Johnston said.

The players will ease the disappointment from the Game 7 loss by going home to families they have seen little of over the last nine months. For Bartschi, who led all WHL scorers in the playoffs with 34 points and come the fall is set to embark on his promising NHL career with the Calgary Flames, that means returning home to Switzerland.

“Hockey’s over for a little bit,” Bartschi said. “I want to think about something else, There’s other things in life besides hockey. For sure you’re going to remember losing in Game 7, but for now I want to think about something else.”

Johnston is already thinking about next season, when he expects to have perhaps the WHL’s best defensive group led by Derrick Pouliot and newly-signed Seth Jones. While Mac Carruth could return for his 20-year-old season in goal, Johnston said 17-year-old Brendan Burke will play a significant amount in the net next season.

Up front, Johnston anticipates Ty Rattie returning for his 19-year-old season. When training camp opens on Aug. 22, a group of young but talented forwards will begin auditioning for leading roles.

Said Johnston: “How quickly our forwards adapt to the league and adjust to how we want them to play will be probably the telltale sign of whether we’re going to be a big-time impact team next year, or we’re just going to be a good team.”