PORTLAND — Of the throng of fans who crowded into the parking lot on the north side of Veterans Memorial Coliseum late Sunday, no one was more eager to greet the victorious Portland Winterhawks than Mike Johnston.
The team’s general manager and head coach — and the main architect of the team that won the Western Hockey League championship — Johnston had not interacted with the players since Nov. 28 as a result of a season-long suspension.
The bus pulled in shortly after 11 p.m., players raised the Ed Chynoweth Cup in the parking lot as if they were parading it around the ice, and Johnston had his chance to embrace players and pose with the team and the type of photo taken on the ice when a hockey championship is won.
“I’m just so proud of this group and how they’ve played, how they responded to some adversity. There’s just a special feeling,” Johnston said.
Johnston is still banned from coaching the team at the Memorial Cup, which begins on Friday in Saskatoon, but was granted permission by the WHL to greet the team on Sunday. He will be at Tuesday’s public celebration for the team at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland.
Shortly before the team arrived at 11 p.m., Johnston addressed the crowd of several thousand.
“These opportunities don’t come around that often, so I encourage you to enjoy it,” he told them.
Among those soaking in the moment was Stuart Kemp, Vancouver resident and president of the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club. After watching Sunday’s game at a viewing party at Kenton Station restaurant in North Portland, Kemp used social media to spread the word about fans gathering to welcome home their champions.
Kemp said Sunday night’s rain was the tears of WHL commissioner Ron Robison. It was Robison who imposed historic penalties upon the Winterhawks in November.
On Sunday, it was Robison who handed the trophy to the Winterhawks.
Johnston did not bring up his suspension. He talked as if he were a proud parent welcoming home long-lost sons.
“I had a lot of confidence in our group. I really did,” Johnston said. “You look at them much like your kids. You’re really very, very proud of them because of how they’ve played, the resiliency that they’ve had throughout the year.”
Sporting a plastic Darth Vader mask emblematic of the Evil Empire persona the team embraced following the league penalties, and holding one of the $30 commemorative shirts being sold, Camas resident Mike Johnson said he has followed the team the 1980s but became a regular at games in recent seasons.
“Of course, when your team’s playing well, everyone wants to come to games,” he said.
Michael Hervi of Battle Ground wanted to greet the Winterhawks even though Mother’s Day events prevented him from watching Sunday’s title clinching win.
“I’m just excited that they took the championship,” Hervi said.
The 22-year-old said he has been a fan for three years.
“It’s the fast pace and aggressive play,” he said, explaining why he became a fan. “They just know how to make it happen.”
On Sunday, after losing in the finals the previous two seasons, they made a championship happen.
In the middle of it all was Kyle Gustafson, a Vancouver resident in his seventh season as a Winterhawks assistant coach. He said he was surprised when his wife, Tonya, sent him a text telling him that thousands were awaiting the team.
“As soon as the game ended, it was great. The flight home was even better,” Gustafson said. “And to see this reaction from the crowd of fans is unbelievable. This solidifies that we have the best fans in the WHL.”