Above the Glass
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.
In hockey, late birthdays are thought to put players at a disadvantage. But tell that to Taylor Aronson, Joe Morrow and Sven Bartschi, late birthdays who were all signed, sealed and almost delivered to their NHL teams soon after being drafted. You’d never think that some of the best boys of winter were born in summer, but they were. So today, in honor of Sven’s 19th birthday, I did a little research and I found out that when it comes to hockey, a birthday means everything.
After tasting life in the NHL, local heroes Sven Bartschi and Ty Rattie returned to Portland last night to a rude awakening, as the Winterhawks lost to the Tri-City Americans 4 – 1. Sven especially had hoped he would stay with the Calgary Flames for a least a few regular season games, and it was clear last night that he was still visibly disappointed that didn’t happen. To return on a loss certainly didn’t help things, but all of our draft talent is already achieving more at their young age than I was in my late teens. I know them enough to know that they appreciate their good fortune and that they love playing here. But I also know how I saw the world at their age, and I’d be pretty tweaked right now if I were them. Which got me to thinking, what would I tell them about appreciating how lucky they are and how to make the most of this season?
As most Portland fans know, I have already declared four to be the Winterhawks’ magic number. By and large, they have proven it this weekend. Whether they are at NHL training camps or back with the team, it worked like a charm. What does it all mean? Not sure, maybe nothing, but if you were a Winterhawk in a hockey game this weekend and the number four or a derivative thereof was involved, it’s a good bet there was a victory.
Well, part of it anyway. After a trip to the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, I’m happy to report that hockey’s future is bright. And a good chunk of it is from the WHL, including my hometown boys Sven Bartschi and defenseman William Wrenn. You may see some of the same players in this week’s pre-season action, so I’d suggest tuning in to their frequencies. Because if a few days in BC were any indication, hockey’s future is secure and they’ll be coming to an NHL rink near you.
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