PORTLAND, Ore. — Cody Eakin and Ryan Johansen became fast friends as teammates for Canada’s silver medal squad at the world junior championships in December.
But the two will have to put that friendship aside as Eakin’s Kootenay Ice face Johansen’s Portland Winterhawks in the best-of-seven Western Hockey League final, which starts today in Portland.
“We got along well, but he’s just any other opponent at this point,” said Eakin, who was acquired in a mid-season trade from Swift Current. “Maybe after the series we can be friendly, but now we’re both going to play hard to win.”
The Ice, based in Cranbrook, B.C., come in as perhaps the hottest team in major junior hockey, having won 11 straight playoff games since falling into a 2-1 hole against Moose Jaw in the first round. As the Eastern Conferences’ fourth seed, Kootenay swept past regular-season champion Saskatoon, then won four straight against Medicine Hat in the conference final, despite being underdogs in both series.
“When you’re going so well, you don’t really want to take a break and get that rust,” said Kootenay’s rookie head coach Kris Knoblauch, whose team hasn’t played since April 27. “You might not be as sharp and it will take a while to get up to game speed, but we also have some guys who benefited from the time off.”
The Ice have made the playoffs in each of their 13 seasons in Cranbrook, winning the WHL title in 2000 and 2002, and the 2002 Memorial Cup. But they haven’t been to a league final since.
On the flip side, the Winterhawks are just three years removed from an 11-win season and ownership turmoil that put the future of the franchise in doubt. But since Calgary businessman Bill Gallacher purchased the team and installed Mike Johnston as general manager and head coach, Portland has been on a steady upward trend.
This year, the Winterhawks finished first in the Western Conference with 103 points, then downed Everett, Kelowna and archrival Spokane to advance to the WHL final for the first time since 2001. Portland last won the league title in 1998, when it went on to capture its second Memorial Cup.
The Winterhawks boast 10 NHL draft picks, including top-five selections Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, but remain a bit of a mystery in Canada due to the relative lack of wide exposure for U.S.-based junior teams.
“I guess we’re the hidden gem down here,” said Portland forward Tayler Jordan. “Everybody knows about us, but not a lot of people have seen us play.”
Portland assistant coach Travis Green, who’s preparing the team this week while Johnston tends to the WHL’s bantam draft in Calgary, says the Hawks players should be able to handle the pressure of the final series.
“We have a somewhat young team, but they’ve gone through a lot,” he said. “A lot have been to NHL camps and played on big stages in world championships, so I like the makeup of our team and don’t see a team that will be rattled by anything.”
The most high-profile head-to-head matchup in the series will be between Eakin and Johansen, but both teams have a number of dangerous teammates. Six Portland players are averaging at least a point a game in the playoffs, led by Niederreiter’s 23 points in 16 games. For Kootenay, Max Reinhart tops all playoff goal scorers with 14, including five in the Game 4 clincher against Medicine Hat.
The series also presents a contrast of cities. Portland is the centre of a basketball- and football-mad metro area with a population of more than two million. Meanwhile, Cranbrook’s 19,000 residents could each have their own seat at the Winterhawks’ home arena, the Rose Garden, for an NBA game (the Winterhawks close the top level of the arena, leaving hockey capacity at just under 11,000).
“When I played in the WHL more than 20 years ago (for Spokane), it was intimidating to come into a packed house in Portland,” said Green. “We’re starting to see that again with big crowds, and it’s a nice advantage for us.”