PORTLAND, Ore. – After winning their first Western Hockey League title in 15 years, the Portland Winterhawks took time to party with the city’s loyal hockey fans, capped off by a downtown rally attended by thousands.
An hour after leaving Tuesday’s celebration, the Winterhawks were back on the ice for practice, focused on the next task at hand: the Memorial Cup.
Reviled by many around the league for their rapid ascent from the league basement to three straight WHL finals, the Winterhawks won the Ed Chynoweth Cup just over five months after being handed the stiffest sanctions in major junior hockey history.
For transgressions that included providing flights to player families and a cell phone to the team captain, Portland was fined $200,000 and docked nine draft picks over a five-year period. In addition, head coach and general manager Mike Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the season, placing the team in the hands of assistant Travis Green.
Instead of folding up shop, the defiant Winterhawks rallied around the opportunity to win the WHL championship for their exiled leader, who was allowed to join in on the public celebrations but won’t be able to be in contact with the team in Saskatoon.
After coming up short in the 2011 and 2012 WHL finals, Portland finally broke through in 2013 with a six-game victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings to seal a fifth trip to the Memorial Cup. The Winterhawks previously won the Cup in 1983 and 1998.
Portland will now compete with the host Saskatoon Blades, Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Halifax Mooseheads for the top prize in major junior hockey.
After a two-month grind of best-of-seven series to earn the league crown, the shift to a round-robin tournament can be tough adjustment to make on the fly.
“In a seven-game series if you lose a game, you usually have another one to make up for it,” said defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon, who played for Canada in this year’s world junior championship. “In this format, you can lose a game and be kicked out, so you have to be so focused on every game.”
Wotherspoon says his experience at the world juniors, which also uses a round-robin format, can be useful for a Memorial Cup run. Portland teammate Ty Rattie also played for Canada, and defenceman Seth Jones played for the gold medal-winning American team in Ufa, Russia.
“A lot of people say this is the toughest tournament to win,” added Wotherspoon. “My goal has always been to win a Memorial Cup.
We’ve had a successful year, but it could be even more so if we win this.”
For Jones, an American in his first season in the Canadian junior system, the Memorial Cup didn’t hold much interest until this season.
“I knew about it and how it worked, but it didn’t mean much to me until now,” said Jones, who says each game is “almost do or die.”
The WHL has long been considered the toughest and most physical of the three major junior leagues, but the Winterhawks are a team built around speed and skill.
“Our preparation hasn’t changed a whole lot all year,” said Green. “It’s no secret that we play with a lot of speed and manage the puck.”
The team’s top forward line of Brendan Leipsic, Nicolas Petan and Rattie finished as the top three scorers in the WHL this season (Leipsic and Petan shared the lead with 120 points, while Rattie had 110). Rattie is the giant of the line at six feet and 176 pounds.
Leipsic and Petan are each five-foot-nine.
In the post-season, Rattie elevates his already dominant game to another level. He’s the WHL’s all-time leader in playoff goals with 50 in 75 games, including 20 in 21 games this season. In his last 48 games dating to the regular season, Rattie has scored 49 times.
The second line of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase De Leo and Taylor Leier stepped up its contributions in the WHL playoffs, giving the Winterhawks a dynamic top six up front.
Despite all that, the key to Portland’s success this year might be a four-man defensive corps that ranks among the best the WHL has ever seen.
With top NHL draft prospect and WHL rookie of the year Jones added this year to a group that includes first-round Pittsburgh Penguins draftee Derrick Pouliot, second-round Calgary Flames pick Wotherspoon and Ottawa Senators signee Troy Rutkowski, the Winterhawks allowed just 36 goals in 21 post-season games.
The Portland defence is not known for being rugged, but rather for its ability to control the puck and move out its own end quickly.
In net, overager Mac Carruth is the most experienced goalie in WHL playoff history, with a league-record 49 wins and 75 games played.
The Winterhawks have been branded as the “Evil Empire” among opposing fans in the WHL due to the sanctions against the team, spurred on by violations detractors say helped fuel Portland’s recent run of success on the ice.
Portland players and staff have used the term as a point of pride, though, and seem to relish their status as the team everyone loves to hate.
“I’m getting booed in a lot of places,” said Jones with a wide smile. “It’s starting to become a repeat offense, but its fun.”
© The Canadian Press, 2013