PORTLAND — For the players who have been with Portland Winterhawks the longest, finally winning a Western Hockey League championship in 2013 is the memory they expect will be front and center years down the road. Coming up one win short of a Memorial Cup title doesn’t tarnish that achievement.
“Winning the WHL championship is going to be the most prevalent thing in my mind,” said Taylor Peters, one of three 20-year-olds who definitely saw his junior hockey career end on Sunday when Halifax beat Portland 6-4 in the Memorial Cup championship game. “This group of guys, it’s been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. You don’t get these kinds of groups very often.”
The team returned to Portland on Monday, disappointed and tired, but thankful for opportunity to compete in major junior hockey’s biggest game.
Peters, team captain Troy Rutkowski and goalie Mac Carruth were mainstays on the ice as the Winterhawks went from the worst team in the WHL in 2008 to champions in 2013.
“I don’t think I needed to do much” to build team chemistry, Rutkowski said. “Everybody just jelled. They were a treat to be around.”
Carruth said he appreciated the way his teammates supported him through thick and thin.
“I’ll remember the guys in the locker room. They’ve had my back no matter what, and that’s something special,” Carruth said.
These Portland Winterhawks rewrote many records — including 117 regular-season points and 57 wins, 29 on the road. But the 2012-13 season was also shaped by the suspension of general manager and head coach Mike Johnston, who on Monday was able to return to work.
Ty Rattie, who most likely played his final game for the Winterhawks on Sunday, said he wouldn’t have played any games for Portland if not for Johnston.
“I wasn’t going to come here. Mike called me and I knew how well-respected Mike was in the hockey world,” Rattie said. “I came here just because of Mike, so (his suspension) was devastating. But we came together as a team, and we proved everybody wrong.”
Rattie will be 20 next season, but almost certainly will be playing professionally in St. Louis or with the Blues’ minor-league team.
“I’ve grown up here,” Rattie said. “I remember when I was 16 and my mom didn’t trust me driving on the highway in the big city.”
He recalled being so homesick for Aidrie, Alberta, as a 15-year-old that he wanted to go home right away. He played 10 games in that season, then scored the overtime game-winner to beat Spokane in Game 7 of his first playoff series as a 16-year-old.
Now he owns the WHL record for playoff goals with 50, and including six goals in the Memorial Cup scored 207 career goals for the Winterhawks.
“To be at the end of it is kind of sad,” Rattie said, “but exciting to reflect on everything I went through.”
Seth Jones, sure to be one of the first players selected in the June National Hockey League draft, likely was a one-season Winterhawk. He said Monday that one reason he chose to play in Portland instead of playing college hockey was to get to the NHL as soon as possible.
But Jones said he never felt like a newcomer in the Winterhawks locker room, another tribute to the chemistry of a highly skilled, highly motivated team.
“Before the home opener, I felt like I’d been on the team for a couple of years,” Jones said.
No memory of hit — Taylor Leier, who was knocked out in Portland’s game against Saskatoon, said he was out until he woke up on a table in the locker room and has no memory of Dalton Throwers’ hit that gave him a concussion.
“I remember lining up for the faceoff and a chip forward and then I woke up on a table,” Leier said. “It was tough. But what can you do? It’s a hockey play. It happened. I was trying to make a play, and he was trying to make a hit. He just caught me in a bad spot.”
Leier said his concussion symptoms have improved. He plans to rest for two more weeks and hopes to be headache-free to begin offseason workouts.
Oh, and he only watched a video of the hit once.
Another Rattie? — Ty Rattie said he plans to return to Portland in August for the Winterhawks training camp. His 15-year-old brother Taden, who Ty said is already 6-foot-3, has been invited to try out.
Winterhawks players will hold individual season-ending interviews Tuesday with the coaching staff.