Portland Winterhawks on Comeback Trail

By Tom Hoffert
The Portland Winterhawks went from Memorial Cup Champions to WHL lightweights in two seasons, yet looked solid in front of their hometown crowd Friday night. Three seasons after winning the Junior Hockey’s most coveted prize, and many painful losses later, this year’s Winterhawk team may surprise the WHL’s elite teams with a fresh and inspired effort. After losing the team’s tremendous leadership core of Brenden Morrow, Andrew Ference and others to professional hockey, Portland seemed to lose the intensity and commitment required to play their tough 72 game schedule last season. As with all great organizations however, management made the necessary changes in coaching, nurtured their draft picks, and now look close to regaining the form that made them Canadian Hockey League Champions.

The 2000-2001 Winterhawks will be under the youthful reigns of former Hawk defenseman Mike Williamson. Coach Williamson took over for Harold Snepsts towards the end of last season in the midst of various communication problems between Coach Snepsts and the players. Williamson did an excellent job to right the ship and leave players motivated for their summer workouts. In August, GM Ken Hodge and Williamson together selected Troy Mick to be Assistant Coach of the Winterhawks. Coach Mick will provide this year’s Hawks with veteran leadership as well as a winning attitude.

Here’s the quick notes on the game Friday night, September 15th, at Memorial Coliseum between the
Portland Winterhawks and the Tri-City Americans . . .

Before any scoring could occur, big Mike Lee of Tri-Cities boarded a Portland defenseman, which didn’t sit kindly with Portland heavyweight Eric Bowen. The gloves were dropped, and two of the Western Conference’s toughest went for a dance. Good blows were given by Mr. Bowen as he had 6’0″ 215 lbs. Lee in quite a tangle. Mr. Lee was not about to be out done by fellow American Bowen and began to resort to his left hook as the answer. All in all, I would call the fight a close draw, with the mark going to Bowen for doing the deed to keep his teammates safe. After the game, Eric noted that Mike was a good friend, however the cheap shots would not be tolerated this year and he is more than willing to patrol the ice. Both of these gentlemen have worked hard in the off-season on their strength and both seem ready to take care of business this season. Unfortunately, the referee Mitchell decided he had heard enough out of these two and gave them both game misconducts. As a player, I must convey my dislike for the subjective power given to referees following an altercation such as this. Understandably, it is important to keep control of the game, yet players must be given the opportunity to take care of their agendas without fear of getting the ‘ol heave-ho for mixing words after throwing a few fists at each other. Given that the officiating crew is also in their pre-season, I can understand their anxiousness to maintain control at the start of the game and not end up with a slug-fest, so I will let this one go.

The scoring began for Portland on a quick wrap-around by 2000 Florida Panther draft pick Josh Olson, at 11:36 of the 1st period. The big 6’4″ 215 lbs. forward will turn some heads this year and should provide the Hawks with a big fore-check and ample scoring touch. Shawn Roed added the game’s second goal, a tally assisted by Hawks defenseman Jesse Ferguson at 19:07 in the 2nd period. Mr. Roed, a swift skating forward with tremendous grit, should make a solid run at a roster spot on Team USA’s 2001 World Junior squad. Super attitude and great hands helped Roed post 22 points in 25 games for the Hawks last year, following a disappointing start at the college level in Minnesota. Though only 5’8″ and 175 lbs., Roed possesses speed to burn and should devastate WHL goalies this season.

Tri-Cities got on the scoresheet at 8:49 in the 3rd period as stud defenseman Sean Curry slipped one through Hawks goaltender Lanny Ramage, assisted by Aaron Winterholt and Jesse Schultz. Mr. Curry was given some serious ice time and displayed the type of physical prowess necessary to compete at this level. I was very impressed by his punishing hits and willingness to set up physically. Towering at 6’5″ 229 lbs., the hits delivered by this young man have just begun. This guy looks like he may have the tools to make an impact on the WHL, should the Americans coaching staff see it fit.

Portland goaltender Ramage played a tremendous game, highlighted by stoning Schultz on a penalty shot in the 3rd period. The shot was awarded to Schultz due to a controversial call by Referee Mitchell. Hawks defenseman James DeMone seemingly made an excellent play to clear a puck from the side of the Hawk’s net with a glove flick. From my view-point, it appeared Mr. DeMone and the puck were not in the crease, thus no reason for a penalty, but Mitchell did not see it the same. To say that I have not been a fan of Jimmy DeMone and his play last season would be an understatement. However, I was very impressed with DeMone’s increased intensity and superb physical strength. After receiving a verbal lashing from GM Ken Hodge at a post-game interview last season, DeMone has demonstrated he is serious about staying in game shape. A late-round draft pick by Ottawa last summer, DeMone may end up becoming one of my favorite Winterhawks. He definitely has the physical attributes to dominate in front of his net, standing 6’5″ 220 lbs. I will look forward to updating his progress this year, but he is definitely heading in the right direction.

Tri-City 20 year old forward Blake Evans seemed to control the flow of the game while he was on the ice. The Smiley, Saskatchewan native packed in some tremendous hits and veteran poise, despite an early soft penalty. Mr. Evans should provide the Americans with a bevy of offensive skills and the much needed bench leadership. The goaltending situation in Tri-Cities may be a cause for concern for the franchise brass, but an overall lack of WHL goaltending talent will be evident this season aside from future stars Dan Blackburn of Kootenay and Brent Krahn of Calgary.

The Portland Winterhawks will bolster their offensive quiver with the return of 2000 Montreal Canadian draft picks Marcel Hossa and Jozef Balej. Mr. Hossa has had a slow rookie camp for Montreal due to a minor injury, but has begun skating in practices. Mr. Balej has been absolutely tremendous in his rookie training camp in Montreal and has been slated to play in all five of their pre-season games with the possibility of playing in a few regular-season games. At any rate, both players will be back with the Hawks by October 2nd and will definitely add superior skill and speed to a maturing Portland squad.

Portland Players to Watch:

1. Nick Marach – Acquired mid-way through last season from the Kootenay Ice, Mr. Marach will be an excellent leader on and off the ice. Impeccable work ethic should reward the 19 year old with the Captaincy. A gritty competitor!

2. Paul Gaustad – Fresh off an outstanding rookie camp with the Buffalo Sabres, Mr. Gaustad is a Portland native and fan favorite. He will be depended on to win key faceoffs and kill penalties.

3. Kevin Young – Having gone through a season-ending shoulder injury/dislocation, Mr. Young assured me he would be in top physical condition coming into camp, ready to show his physical power. Not afraid to drop the mitts.

4. Eric Bowen – Fear factor among opponents will be high and I would not be surprised if many decide to duck a challenge to go toe to toe with Mr. Bowen. Not quite as scary as Derek Parker of Lethbridge, but more intimidating. You will be hard pressed to find a nicer individual in the league to fans and the press, which is always a bonus. (Look for an interview with Eric in the near future)

5. Chad Grisdale – Althoug
h currently healing up from injury, watch this kid upon his return. If you like a brash nasty game like I do, you will love Mr. Grisdale’s play from the defensive line. He loves to step up from the blue line to deliver the big hit.

Thank you for reading and email me any comments at [email protected]