Hawks president Doug Piper says the team might have had to leave the area a few years ago if Portland had brought baseball in. "We sure didn't want to leave Portland," he says. "It's one of the best markets in the country."
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Even before the Winterhawks came to Portland in 1976, hockey had long had a home in the Rose City. Starting with the Portland Rosebuds in 1914, the city has almost always had a hockey team. Other incarnations have included the Portland Eagles and the Portland Buckaroos, the latter of whom played in the Memorial Coliseum — which was built in the 1960s largely for hockey — until 1975.
The Winterhawks, a team of 16- to 20-year-olds who are technically not considered professional, have had some real highs and lows in their 36 years. The team won the Memorial Cup in 1983 and again in 1998; during the latter season, average attendance at home games topped 8,500 people.
But under new ownership beginning in 2006, the Hawks nearly disappeared. Already in weak financial shape, the team floundered under a three-member ownership group who reportedly butted heads with the city and the Trail Blazers. Cost-cutting measures, such as not investing in a new sound system, detracted from the fan experience, and the team itself was in the gutter. In the 2007-08 season, the Hawks won just 11 of 72 games and average attendance was half what it had been a decade before.
“Parents didn't even want their kids playing for us,” Piper says.
The situation got so dire that the WHL stepped in and arranged for a transfer of ownership to Bill Gallacher, a well-heeled Canadian oil executive who acquired the team for a reported $7 million in 2008. Gallacher brought in head coach Mike Johnston, who had been an assistant coach for two National Hockey League teams, and former NHL player Travis Green as assistant to get the Hawks back up to speed on the ice. To help turn around the operations side, Gallacher hired Piper, a Portland native who had headed operations for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes.
“The Winterhawks had lost all relevance in the marketplace,” Piper says. “It was as tough a situation as I’d ever seen.”