Above the Glass
The business side of hockey has been in high gear these past few weeks, with Sean Avery’s re-entry into the NHL atmosphere, the suspension and unconditional waiver of Mattias Ritola, Ken Hitchcok’s hiring in St. Louis and the onoing debate over what, if anything, will fix the Blue Jackets’ woes. Refresh me, how many lawyers did it take to come up with the rules in the collective bargaining agreement that require a team to suspend a player and put him on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract? Total hilarity. All this fuss got me to thinking, what if fans ran the show? What kind of rules would we make up? I have a few thoughts. And we know what happens when I do that.
Tonight, the Portland Winterhawks are playing the second of back to back games with one of my other favorite teams in the WHL: the Kelowna Rockets. First, because they have the balls to put a big scary lake monster right on their jersey and second, because they reside in one of my favorite parts of the world. Oh, and as the current BC Division Champions, they happen to be a really good hockey team.
I’ve always hated that expression “good things come to those who wait.” Now I know it’s about having patience in life and having faith and all that. But let’s face it, life is too short to sit around waiting for it to happen to you. Or, if you are a hockey fan in Portland, waiting for it to happen to one of the Winterhawks. Luckily for him, life did happen in a big way for Ryan Johansen this week, when the Columbus Blue Jackets announced they will keep him for the foreseeable future. But for me, couple that with having to sit here and wait while the Winterhawks complete the final stretch of a 17-day, 9-game road trip, and the result is trouble. And so, with no hockey to be had in Portland, I found myself playing the waiting game this week. And I have come to the conclusion that I really shouldn’t do that ever again. Because some of us just aren’t any good at it.
Last night Winterhawks play-by-play analyst Todd Vrooman interviewed the St. Louis Blues’ President of Hockey Operations John Davidson on an intermission show. Among other things, Davidson sang the praises of Ty Rattie and former Winterhawks captain Brett Ponich. Drafted 48th overall by the Blues in 2009, Brett is a defenseman currently working his way up to the big time by playing in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen. So, Peoria, kindly allow me to introduce you to one of your players to watch.
There are 26 NHL teams in action today, but here in the Dub, Portland hockey fans have their eyes keenly fixed on only one prize: a rematch with the Kootenay Ice. You may recall that last year, the Winterhawks lost to the Ice in Game 5 of the WHL Championship finals. It was the end of magic as we knew it. But the cool thing about junior hockey is that each season, the magic begins anew. Tonight, somewhere in Cranbrook, a new gaggle of teenage boys face off against their new arch enemy and that neutral zone trap thingy. It’s like the time Sven Bartschi told me how he knew Ty Rattie would score last year’s teddy bear toss goal: “I could feel it. This is how it is with big moments like this.” And so it is here in Portland, where we wait while those boys get ready for the biggest game of their 9-game, 17-day road trip extravaganza. This is the only time the Winterhawks will play the Kootenay Ice during the regular season. It is their only chance to avenge what was lost last May. So you can see why today is no ordinary day here in the Rose City, where hope simply must spring eternal.
Tuesday was a big night of firsts on several hockey fronts, including the first NHL goal for Ryan Johansen. It was the game winner to boot, and the Blue Jackets’ win lifted them out of their losing start to the season. Even now, there is still chatter about whether Ryan will stay, will he come back to Portland, will Columbus use all nine games, is he ready for the NHL, blah, blah, blah. I knew Ryan would kick in and start showing why he was drafted 4th overall in 2010 once he got quality ice time and good linemates, and that he did. But all this fuss also got me to thinking about how an NHL team decides whether to keep a prospect or send him back to juniors or to the AHL. What makes a player, no matter how good, ready for the show? And of course, what criteria would I use to determine whether prospects were ready for the big time?
Now that the regular season is underway, bloggers, fans, and all-around NHL experts alike are out in full force pontificating, predicting, number-crunching and analyzing, using highly scientific methods and years of experience and expertise in this business. But I have found a much simpler and more entertaining way to learn everything you ever want to know about the NHL’s future: go bowling with them.
I hear that the Rochester Americans are back on track for a successful season, and I have a personal reason for being happy for all y’all who live there. His name is Riley Boychuk, one of the newest additions to the Amerks roster. He’s a former Portland Winterhawk who traded his overage year in junior for a 3-year entry level deal with the Buffalo Sabres and their AHL team. Riley is a bit of a diamond in the rough, but I can assure you that with a little time and patience, he will shine. Because behind the young man who likes to start the business is a really nice guy who is really good at scoring really pretty goals.
After two spectacular comeback and championship seasons, Portland is dealing with the aftermath of downloading a good chunk of our star-studded roster to the NHL. One year ago, we had 10 draftees on the roster, eight of whom were all taken in the 2010 Entry Draft. Sven Bartschi had just blown into town. This season, we lost four overage players to the AHL (three draftees and one signed as a free agent), and two are still with their NHL teams. In addition, their departures have lowered the average age and average height of the team, as two of them were 6’7” (Brett Ponich) and 6’5” (Riley Boychuk). It’s like the junior hockey version of a Stanley Cup hangover. But there are good things too, like our fresh new ‘95 born talent and the chance to watch Sven and Ty Rattie step up to lead the team. It’s all just part of the ebb and flow of being a junior hockey fan.
You don’t know me, but I know someone who is about to become one of you: Ryan Johansen, who makes his NHL debut tonight. It seems like only a short time ago that we first watched Ryan on our ice, and not that long ago that I met him. And now he’s yours, all yours. The hope that saved us can save you, if the Blue Jackets use wisely the gift we have sent them. I only know Ryan from the time he spent here in Portland, and it was all too brief. But it was enough to know what we have lost and you have gained. If you didn’t keep an eye on him while he was in Portland, I would suggest you tune in tonight. Because his frequency is about to get very loud.
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