The turnaround of the Portland Winterhawks is good news for more than just fans.
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.”
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.”
Annual attendance at Winterhawks home games this year was up about 2,500 people per game from 2008, and sellouts–like the series versus Edmonton–are on the rise.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
The new crew wasted little time in resuscitating the franchise. Johnston’s approach to hockey — “He’s more teacher than coach,” Piper says — coupled well with Green’s on-ice experience, and the team slowly started to pick up wins. The organization beefed up its sales and marketing team, replaced the Coliseum’s sound system and introduced a new mascot as well as the Portland Rosebuds dance team. At the same time, the Hawks started reaching out to the community, sending players to children’s hospitals and getting them involved in other local events.
The team also set up the nonprofit Winterhawks Amateur Hockey Association as a way to introduce more kids to the sport. As part of that effort, the Hawks invested $750,000 in upgrades to a community ice rink in Beaverton and renamed it the Winterhawks Skating Center. Ninety percent of the center’s time is now booked for youth hockey, according to Piper.
Additionally, Piper says the team worked to build a “mystique of popularity” by focusing on a handful of games each season to sell out by offering special promotions, such as the “Dash for Cash,” which finds lucky fans scrambling over the ice for silver dollars. The first season, the new ownership focused on seven games to sell out; the next year, 10. Now, Piper says, the team is on its way to selling out half of its home games every year.
According to Robison, the Hawks averaged 6,075 people per home game this year for a total of about 218,000 — the sixth-best attendance in the entire 22-team WHL. Season ticket holders have doubled to nearly 3,600 and membership in the team’s booster club has gone from 135 members four years ago to more than 400 now.
“We have a lot of very passionate fans who have stuck with the Winterhawks through the highs and lows,” says Stuart Kemp, president of the nonprofit Portland Winterhawks Booster Club. “We’re seeing a lot of new fans, too, and people who may have forgotten about it have started coming back because they realize that there’s something going on here again.”
Corporate sponsorships have tripled in the past three years, as well. Piper is hopeful that trend will continue, especially after the Coliseum gets its much-needed renovations. Whereas the city just a few years ago considered tearing down the building to make way for a baseball stadium, now the Portland City Council is poised to approve a plan for the $32 million overhaul. The Winterhawks will shoulder $10 million of the cost; federal tax credits and urban renewal money will cover the rest. Renovations will include a larger ice sheet, new seating and a high definition scoreboard and screen, all of which should be ready for the start of the Hawks 2013 season.
Piper says not only will the renovation be good for fans and the team, but it might also spur redevelopment projects throughout the entire Rose Quarter.
“This is just the first step in a much grander urban renewal project,” he says, “one that we’re going to be right in the middle of.”