Winterhawks turning things around

On the verge of possible extinction just two years ago, the Portland Winterhawks have since flown to lofty heights.

On the verge of possible extinction just two years ago, the Portland Winterhawks have since flown to lofty heights.

“We were at risk of losing the franchise,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison told Scott Sepich of the Portland Oregonian in a recent interview. “We had to embark on a rescue operation.”

Portland’s franchise had hit an all-time low in 2008, both on and off the ice. The team was in dire financial straits and a new owner was needed.

“It needed to change quickly,” said Robison, who is pleased with the results since Calgary businessman Bill Gallacher, who also owns the junior A Nanaimo Clippers, purchased the franchise in October of ‘08.

The one-time league doormats are now legitimate contenders, sitting fifth in the Western Conference with a 40-24-2-1 record and looking pretty for next season and beyond.

However, the road to financial recovery has proven to be more difficult, although team president Doug Piper told Sepich progress is being made despite the state of the U.S. economy.

“Of course you get impatient, but this is going to take a while, and everyone understands that,” said Piper.

Gallacher said the Portland franchise, which he purchased for a reported price of $7 million, was attractive in many ways.

“It’s rare to be able to buy a big-market club in the WHL,” he said. “I thought it fit with everything I wanted — I didn’t have to move it, there’s a great tradition, and there’s a knowledgeable fan base.”

Piper, a former NHL executive hired by Gallacher shortly after he purchased the ‘Hawks, is a big fan of his boss and his contributions to the Portland area.

“Bill doesn’t have the profile of (Portland Timbers and Beavers owner) Merritt Paulson here,” said Piper. “But he’s really devoted to this market and has made a big investment here.”

The Winterhawks are working with the NBA Trail Blazers on their lease at the Rose Garden and ticket sales are improving, but the ‘Hawks are still struggling at the gate with an average attendance of 4,237 through 32 home games, an increase of 16 per cent over last season but still well back of the 6,129 averaged by the team in its last playoff season of 2005-06.

Qualifying for the post-season after a four-year absence will boost the bottom line and home games will turn a profit if more than 2,000 fans appear at the Coliseum, a less expensive facility than the much larger Rose Garden.

Piper and his staff realize that restoring the team’s credibility with the fans and business community is an ongoing process that will take time, but is certainly doable.

“If you show respect to the fans and community,” said Piper, “and put forth the effort to put a product on the ice people can be proud of, that goes a long way to repairing wounds.”

Meanwhile, Gallacher has been mentioned in various reports as a potential owner of an NHL team. For the time being, at least, he’s not interested.

“Even if I did (purchase an NHL franchise), it wouldn’t affect the teams I own,” he told Sepich. “It might even be helpful. But I have no immediate plans for that right now.”

Just notes: The Moose Jaw Warriors, in a battle for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, have lost ace forward Quinton Howden for four to six weeks with a broken collarbone. While the Warriors are in good shape regarding a playoff berth, Howden’s loss will definitely hurt the team’s hopes of advancing beyond the first round. Still, head coach Dave Hunchak was trying to present a brave face when talking to Matthew Gourlie of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald. “It’s a big loss, but as any injury happens, it’s an opportunity for someone else to step in and fill that role,” said Hunchak. Howden has contributed 28 goals and 65 points in 65 points this season . . . The Chilliwack Bruins will likely meet either the Tri-City Americans or the Vancouver Giants in round one of the playoffs and, coincidentally, will host both teams this weekend. Is there a message to be sent? Not necessarily, suggested Bruins head coach Marc Habscheid. “It’s still more about the process for us, getting ready for game one of the playoffs and where we need to be at that point,” Habscheid told Eric Welsh of the Chilliwack Progress. “We’ve talked about not jumping ahead in the process. We’ll stick with it until game 72, and hopefully at that point the process is where it needs to be heading into the playoffs.” . . . Red Deer native and Swift Current Broncos forward Michael Stickland is the Canadian Hockey League player of the week after contributing two goals and seven points in two games while recording a plus-minus rating of plus-4. Stickland, 20, is in his fourth season in the WHL, having played previously with the Kootenay Ice. He has 20 goals and 30 assists in 64 games this season . . . The Kelowna Rockets and Spokane Chiefs are card-carrying members of the ‘mutual admiration society’. Rockets coach Ryan Huska, in conversation with Doyle Potenteau of the Kelowna Daily Courier, labelled the Chiefs as the most dangerous team in the Western Conference. “There’s a lot of good teams in our conference, but I would rate them as the No. 1 team,” said Huska. When informed of Huska’s comments, Chiefs head coach Hardy Sauter responded: “For Ryan to give us that sort of compliment, it’s extremely flattering . . . if you want to know the truth, it honestly sets me back a little bit. I definitely respect him as a coach and his team, and for him to say something like that is definitely a huge compliment. Hopefully we live up to the billing.”