BY JON BELL
WHL Western Conference champions two years in a row, the Portland Winterhawks have sparked renewed excitement in Portland in more ways than one.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
If you took a listen to the sports scene in Portland this spring, you probably didn't get much of an earful.
Sure, the Timbers Army — the motley crew that backs the city’s Major League Soccer team — was as boisterous and booming as always. But with the Timbers at the bottom of their conference in mid May, the noise was much more bark than bite.
Over at the Rose Garden in mid April, the Utah Jazz completely muzzled the Portland Trail Blazers in their final home game, slamming the door on a lackluster year that Paul Allen later called one of the most disappointing seasons in the 24 years he’s owned the team.
But just across the way at Memorial Coliseum, the building rumbled. Sirens wailed and thousands of fists bashed the air along with AC/DC’s T.N.T. every time the Portland Winterhawks scored a goal in their impressive run through the Western Hockey League’s 2012 playoffs. The team had already won 49 of 72 regular season games. They plowed through the Kelowna Rockets, the Kamloops Blazers and the Tri-City Americans on their way to their second conference championship in a row. And before sellout crowds of nearly 11,000 people in the Rose Garden they battled the Edmonton Oil Kings in a heartbreaking seven-game series that stopped them just short of a spot in the Memorial Cup, the world series of major junior hockey.
That a Portland sports team was actually doing well was remarkable enough. That it was the Winterhawks, whose last taste of the Memorial Cup came back in 1998 and whose prior management had driven them to the brink of nonexistence just a few years ago, was nothing short of miraculous.
“The revitalization has been pretty amazing,” says Ron Robison, commissioner of the WHL. “They have always been one of our most successful franchises, but they fell on some difficult times literally just four or five years ago. To see the way it has turned around has been great.”
And it’s not just on the ice that the Hawks are making waves. Over the past few years, the team has beefed up its community outreach efforts and helped reinvigorate youth hockey in a city with a rich history of the sport. It’s also poised to contribute $10 million to a $32 million overhaul of Memorial Coliseum, a long-overdue renovation that many believe will spur the revitalization of the entire 30-acre Rose Quarter district.
“We’re winning again, we’re getting notice from the press and now it’s becoming interesting to the business community, too,” says Doug Piper, who’s been president of the team since November 2008. “It is this perfect mix of winning games and exciting projects that have really turned around our fortunes.”