Winging it with the Winterhawks: Go behind scenes on a road trip

As Portland flies into playoffs, we go on the bus during a road trip

By Zachary Kaufman, Columbian staff photographer

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Winterhawks Game Day photo gallery

Get on the bus and behind the bench for a Winterhawks road game against Everett.

EVERETT — The mood is light and the guys are loose as Portland Winterhawks players and coaches board the team bus after their 6-2 road victory over the Everett Silvertips on Jan. 26.

It's the Winterhawks' seventh consecutive win, a streak that would eventually reach a franchise record 21 games.

Among the smiles, there's some tension on the face of right wing Ethan Price.

The rookie's night ended with a fighting major 45 seconds before the final horn. With the game in hand, the 17-year-old crushed a Silvertip defenseman with a clean hit, which led to the fight. Price tells assistant coach Karl Taylor that his mom isn't going to be happy. "Why, because of the fight?" asks Taylor. She doesn't like it when he fights Price explains.

With a 72-game regular season, and playoffs that could span an additional two months, Western Hockey League teams have a lot in common with their National Hockey League counterparts. However the 16 to 20-year-olds enjoy fewer perks grinding out over 15,000 miles on a bus each year. The young men spend about 50 nights a year on the road while juggling high school course work or online college courses.

Like most junior and minor league athletes, the dream of one day playing in the big leagues is the motivation behind all those miles. The Winterhawks currently have nine players who have already been drafted by NHL teams. That is far from a guarantee that they will ever play a single game for the teams that drafted them.

Winterhawks veteran Brendan Leipsic, who was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2012, said it's been a long journey since he started skating at age 3 behind his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"All the hard work is still to come, you know," the 19-year-old said. "It's one thing getting drafted, signing a contract. The real work (starts) when you get to the NHL, if you get to the NHL."

Head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said that building through the WHL Bantam Draft — where WHL teams select 14-year-olds they hope will become impact WHL players — is just part of the philosophy that he brought to the team when he was hired early in the 2008-09 season. Johnston believes it's essential for the veteran players to set an example for the younger guys both on and off the ice, showing them, "This is how we do it as Winterhawks. This is how we act, this is how we play."

Johnston's approach has led the team to the WHL finals the past three years. After losing the first two title attempts, the club won the WHL championship last year and went on to play for the Memorial Cup where they lost to Halifax in the final game.

Portland begins a first-round best-of-seven playoff series Friday at home against Vancouver.

For third-year player and Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Taylor Leier, 20, that success comes with big expectations.

"I haven't had a season where we haven't gone to the (WHL) finals yet," Leier said.

The team captain, Leier said he leads by example. He credits the coaching staff and good team chemistry for the success. "I think we have a really good shot at winning again," Leier said.

That team chemistry and support has helped rookie Price transition from the Omaha Lancers 16U team of the North American Prospects Hockey League, where he had 38 points in 22 games last year. This season, Price is embracing his role as a fourth-line energy guy.

"My game? Well technically I like to hit people," he said with a chuckle. He expects as he matures he'll get the opportunity to play a more offensive role. He says living 1,600 miles from his family in Lincoln, Neb., is worth the sacrifice to pursue his dream of becoming an NHL player.

"I knew once I signed here I was getting a step closer, now I just need to keep pushing, and pushing hard," Price said.

And the talk with his mother he was dreading after the fight against Everett?

"Right away when I fought I thought 'Oh my gosh, my mom's going to be so mad at me,'" Price said.

He didn't have to wait long for the phone call from home.

"She was like, 'Ethan, you beat the tar out of him,' I was like 'Oh, OK, thanks mom,'" Price said.

Mom, naturally, got in the final word, telling Price, "but don't do it again."