Above the Glass
After a blockbuster finish to Round 2 of the WHL Playoffs, the final four teams have punched their tickets to the Eastern and Western Conference finals. In Brandon, the Calgary Hitmen will face the Brandon Wheat Kings. Here in the Western Conference, we are gearing up for a second consecutive showdown between the Portland Winterhawks and the Kelowna Rockets. It makes the second round look like mere child’s play compared to what’s on tap for the coming week.
We’re only in the second round of playoffs out here in the WHL, but it already feels like we’re much deeper into it. Maybe it’s the double OT it took the Portland Winterhawks to tie up the series with Everett 1-1. It could be that the Silvertips had to go to trip overtime to eliminate Spokane. Whatever it is, it’s wild and woolly out here as we head into a blockbuster playoff weekend.
From the first day he set foot on Portland ice, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand has delivered on his promise. He was drafted 26th overall in the 2012 CHL Import Draft and signed that year on July 26. Oliver promptly bolted out of the starting gate with his first WHL career goal in his first WHL game on September 21, 2012 and his first multi-point game one night later (two goals, one assist). At the time, he looked like he was 12 and played like he was 25. But all that is child’s play compared to what he has achieved since leading Denmark to the quarter finals of the 2015 World Junior Championship. The past 60 days of his WHL career have been record-breaking and history-making. Columbus Blue Jackets fans, read on if you want to know what the young man we just call Ollie has been up to since returning from the World Junior tournament.
As of Sunday, February 22, 1980, I had never even seen a hockey game. I didn’t know a thing about the sport. All I knew was that the United States Olympic hockey team was about to play the Russians in a game they might lose. I was 12 and otherwise occupied with more important matters like boys, that new Star Wars movie that was coming out in the summer and calculating the exact amount of hairspray it took to maintain my perfectly coiffed Farrah Fawcett feathered hairdo. I could not have cared less. If iPods and noise cancelling headphones had existed at the time, I probably would have missed the game entirely, because my REO Speedwagon record would have drowned out all the noise coming from the living room, where my family was watching the game. And just like that, on a Sunday evening in the Arizona suburbs exactly 35 years ago, a single hockey game changed my life. Watching all the Miracle on Ice interviews and archival footage Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life would have been different if I’d never seen that game. Things happen for a reason, but darned if I knew what it was when I was 12; I just thought Jim Craig was cute.
I've spent the better part of the past two months battling lower body injuries and flu-like illnesses, which can make one feel very old and very sorry for oneself very easily. Through it all, one thing made living on my couch tolerable: hockey, but of course. It saves the day when nothing else - not even modern medicine - will do the trick. It really, truly is the very best and most beautiful game in the world.
I’ve heard from a lot of friends, colleagues and fellow fans who were thrilled to bid 2014 farewell. I’m one of them, but here in Portland, things are looking up. Over the weekend, Portland Winterhawks Captain Nic Petan stole the World Junior show with a hat trick, paving the way for Team Canada’s gold medal in the World Junior Championship. Back at home, Miles Koules scored a hat trick on the same night and goalie Adin Hill posted his first and second career shutouts in back to back games. The weekend’s festivities have made me realize that thinking like a junior hockey player just might hold the key to a happier, less disaster-prone and more successful year in 2015.
Twitter is exploding today with news that Derrick Pouliot has been called up by the Penguins for tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers. His path to the NHL has come full circle: chosen first overall in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, Derrick was the first player Mike Johnston drafted as General Manager of the Portland Winterhawks. Judging from Twitter alone, Portland fans who had plans tonight are either canceling them or preparing to multi-task as we look forward to the professional debut of a former Winterhawk who will always be a fan favorite. In honor of Derrick’s NHL debut, kindly allow me to introduce you to the young man Portland just calls Pooh for short.
The Portland Winterhawks went down in yet another heartbreaker Friday night, this time in a shootout to the number one team in the U.S. Division: the Everett Silvertips. It was a good game right up until the shootout, where the Winterhawks appear to have lost their shooting accuracy. It’s the story of the team’s season to date. Well played and on the upswing, but not quite enough to get the win. The team roared back with a 7-1 win over the Silvertips on Sunday night, so things are looking up. Meanwhile, the Kelowna Rockets continue their siege of the Western Conference (41 points in 22 games played), the Brandon Wheat Kings outpace the rest of the Eastern Conference (35 points in 22 games played) and the Lethbridge Hurricanes continue to circle the drain (5-12-3-1). In unpredictable times like these, one needs to turn to a trusted, predictable source of wisdom, inspiration and hope: the Beastie Boys. Driving home from the Winterhawks’ precious win last weekend over the Kamloops Blazers, I realized that I learned everything I need to know about this season from my favorite rappers.
For the past four seasons, Portland Winterhawks fans have been immune to the cyclical nature of junior hockey, in which teams rebuild every few years. On Mike Johnston’s watch, the Winterhawks didn’t rebuild each season; they simply reloaded. We all knew the day would come when Mike would leave and things would change. He told media on a regular basis that his ultimate goal was the NHL, so it’s not like we weren’t warned. But there were no warning signs that the team would fall so quickly to last place in both the US Division and the Western Conference. One of the great mysteries of hockey, however, is how quickly the game can change. Last night, the Winterhawks broke out with a 6-2 win over the Moose Jaw Warriors, the same day they named Nic Petan Captain and welcomed overage goaltender Bolton Pouliot (cousin of Derrick) to the team. It’s a long way back to the top, but it’s a start. It all got me to thinking: as a fan, just how loyal am I? The choice about whether to stand by the team is mine; which way do I go?
I'm really glad I decided to save this season as draft, because the Portland Winterhawks are off to a start that no one saw coming: 1-7-0-2. It has more than a few fans wishing Mike Johnston was still here, but we are happy to see him achieve his life's dream of making it to the NHL. He's wasting no time in making the same impression on Pittsburgh that he did on Portland. Having known him for the past four seasons, I have one thing to say about Mike Johnston's undefeated start to the NHL season and I mean it in the very best way: Duh. Pittsburgh is the new Portland, where I hope that local Penguins fans will soon see why Portland's motto will always be "in Mike we trust."
About Above the Glass
Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.
I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.
Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass