BEAVERTON — The Edmonton Oil Kings and Portland Winterhawks cross paths only once in each Western Hockey League regular season.
But by clashing in May, the franchises have built a unique kind of rivalry.
For the third year in a row, it’s the Oil Kings and Winterhawks for the WHL championship. What the competition lacks in geographic intensity, the stage they share — including national TV across Canada —more than makes up for.
“I know there’s a bit of a rivalry there after the last few years,” Portland’s Chase De Leo said. “Both teams have a lot of respect for each other and it’s going to be a battle.”
The battle begins — or resumes — with games at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Moda Center. In 2012, Edmonton beat Portland in Game 7 to win the league title. A year ago, the Winterhawks prevailed in six games.
This is only the second time in league history the same two teams met in three consecutive finals. From 1968-70, the original Edmonton Oil Kings and the Flin Flon Bombers clashed three seasons in a row.
“It’s really remarkable that two teams could meet three years in the finals,” Winterhawks coach and general manager Mike Johnston said. “But you look at the core of the group that both teams started to build with and it’s a great core, in the leadership area (and) skill department.”
The Oil Kings have five players who participated in the previous two finals — forwards Henrik Samuelsson, Curtis Lazar and Mitch Moroz, and defensemen Cody Corbett and Ashton Sautner, plus defenseman Griffin Reinhart who played in the 2012 finals but missed last season’s series with an injury.
The Winterhawks have six players who have played in each of the previous two WHL finals, and three — Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Derrick Pouliot — who are playing in the championship series for a fourth consecutive season. Portland lost to Kootenay in the 2011 finals.
“It’s very special. This is a phenomenal organization,” Pouliot said. “They’ve really built that winning tradition here. It’s been an amazing four years.”
Pouliot was the first player selected in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, the first player selected with Johnston at the helm after the team was purchased in the fall of 2008 by Bill Gallacher. This week Pouliot was named the WHL Defenseman of the Year.
“I’m very honored and proud, but there’s still a couple more trophies that we’re after here,” Pouliot said. Those prizes are a second-consecutive league title and a Memorial Cup championship, after the Winterhawks lost in the Memorial Cup finals last season.
In other words, there is no sense of “been there, done that” with the Winterhawks.
Last season, the Winterhawks played with a chip on their collective shoulder because Johnston was banned from coaching the team as a result of league sanctions. This time around, they are motivated to win one with their leader behind the bench.
“Having Mike back, we know how much work he puts into our team,” team captain Taylor Leier said. “He deserves a championship, so that’s what we’re trying to get for him.”
This will be the third WHL finals for Leier. The moment from the last two Edmonton-Portland series that sticks with him most?
“Losing Game 7 (in 2012) is something that sticks out,” Leier said. “That can be one of the best days of your life, but it was probably the worst day of the year that year.”
Perhaps the Winterhawks and Oil Kings will play seven more games this May. The longer it takes to decide the best-of-7 series, the more the rivalry will intensify. And so, in the long run, will be the respect between two franchises experiencing historic success.
“They’re a very good team over there,” De Leo said. “They obviously keep doing the little things right with their organization and they obviously know how to pick their players — just like our organization here.”
W-Hawks draft nine
The Portland Winterhawks picked up nine players during Thursday’s Western Hockey League Bantam Draft.
The Hawks top pick was forward Cody Glass of Winnipeg, selected 19th overall with a pick acquired in a January trade with Calgary. A member of the Bantam AAA Winnipeg Hawks, Glass had 31 goals and 46 assists in 32 games this season, then added 17 points in 11 playoff games.
Bantam age players are 13 and 14 years old and not eligible to play full time in the WHL for at least two years.