With the hot weather outside, it's once again that time to think about our cold sports like hockey. Locally, that would the Portland Winterhawks and a start to its season less than three weeks away.
Before the first drop of the puck, several changes happened since that heartbreaking loss in the Memorial Cup final to the Halifax Mooseheads. The Hawks saw Assistant Coach and GM Travis Green get an offer from the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League to be their coach for next season. Seeing the incredible work that Green did following the November suspension of GM and Coach Mike Johnston with the Hawks, many felt his chance would come sooner than later. There was thought that he might land a WHL head coaching job, possibly with Everett, but the deal with the AHL seemed to be the one that many could see Mike Johnston's hands on. Johnston's connections with the LA Kings and Vancouver Canucks, of which the Utica team is owned by, were probably the deciding factor, but there is no doubt that Green’s work with the Hawks the past five seasons has been instrumental in the success the team has seen. With that departure, the Hawks were looking for a bit of restructuring.
Major changes to the front office recently saw the departure of Steve Kariya who was only in the balance of the playoffs for video work during the Hawks run, though many people thought he could be retained. Kyle Gustafson moves into a more prominent behind the bench as an assistant coach. He had been the main video guy for the team, but his work again during Johnston's suspension certainly earned him a spot. Another assistant coach position was recently filled by Karl Taylor. No one really knew who he was locally until an interview with Johnston cleared up the situation.
Prior to Johnston's work with the Hawks and the pros, he had been a university professor, hence his strong beliefs in the education of the players. Johnston coached Taylor in New Brunswick, Canada and watched him in the ECHL as a coach of the Redding Royals and the Ontario Reign and this past season as assistant coach of the AHL Chicago Wolves. Taylor will add the level of professional hockey experience that left with Travis Green.
Matt Bardsley, who started with the Hawks as a local scout, has been elevated to Assistant General Manager from his previous role of Director of Hockey Operations which handled mostly scouting. His GM responsibilities coincide with the scouting roles, as he has been very active in the locating of and signing players to WHL education contracts.
The Hawks also looked at the situation they would have ahead for the 2013-14 season and the maximum 3 20-year-old slots. It is expected that Tyler Wotherspoon and Ty Rattie will not return to the Hawks, moving to the NHL. Joey Baker, the other eligible 20-year-old elected to use his WHL scholarship and will not return. The open spots allowed the Hawks to bring in Garrett Haar, a former property of the Medicine Hat Tigers and a student in Michigan for a conditional pick. Having been drafted by an NHL team, Haar looked to use this season to showcase his talents in order to land a pro deal. Shane McColgan, whom many fans saw do serious damage to the Hawks playoff runs with the Kelowna Rockets, was picked up from Saskatoon Blades for a couple of draft picks. The Blades, who had a moderately successful season but had loaded up for a shot in the Memorial Cup, found themselves with too many 20-year-old "overagers" and had to divest themselves quickly. Having McColgan and Haar onboard gives the Hawks some vets and there will be more attending. The latest, Lukas Walter, was originally brought to camp by the Hawks, but has not signed. Tri-City Americans saw his play during camp and signed him, which provided toughness to their lineup for the past couple of seasons. As seemingly traditional for Tri-City, they pare off 20-year-olds to their three maximum before camp. Walter and goaltender Luke Lee-Knight were the cuts.
The Hawks made one selection in the European draft, taking Anton Cedarholm from Sweden. Anton was drafted 145th by the Vancouver Canucks in this year's NHL draft. His 6'2" 207 pound frame will complement the defense. Danish forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was last year's Euro standout for the Hawks, was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third round of this year's draft. Kirill Vorobev, who was a Russian defenceman for the Hawks this past year, had injury trouble toward the end of the season and could never get back to full potential. He was waived by the Hawks prior to the European draft.
More excitement is coming for the Hawks as they get ready to open camp with up to 90 players, about half of which were born in 1998 and will not be eligible to play this season, but will get their feet wet in the WHL. Some surprises will happen with the players as those diamonds in the rough are discovered.
The Winterhawks regular season open on Friday September 20 against the Prince George Cougars at the Rose Garden.
Stuart Kemp is the President of the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club, a 501(c)(3) registered charity which raises funds for the Continuing Education Fund for players and other local hockey charities.