Above the Glass
The junior hockey off season, that is. Unless of course your team is lucky enough to be competing for the Memorial Cup, which runs from May 17 - 27. Alas, my team is not. The Portland Winterhawks’ season is over after a crushing defeat in Game 7 of the WHL finals on Sunday. But very best wishes to the very worthy and totally loaded Edmonton Oil Kings as they seek to bring the Memorial Cup back to the Dub. I still have NHL playoff hockey to keep me busy of course, but here on the local front, it means no more live and in person hometown games. And so, it’s time to prepare for the battle known as the off season. In this first of two installments, I’ll look at how to recognize it’s time to get a non-hockey hobby or two.
As a fan of the sport who grew up in California and Arizona, you can imagine how giddy I am that the battle for the Western Conference title will be waged by the LA Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes. Even more exciting is what is about to transpire in the next 72 hours in Portland and Edmonton, as the Winterhawks and the Oil Kings battle it out for WHL supremacy. I was busy explaining all this to some dude on the elevator at work when he stopped me and asked “so, what is it about hockey that’s so great?” It was then that I realized the answer would take much longer than the elevator ride. Which got me to thinking, how do I really explain to people why I love hockey?
Tonight, the Portland Winterhawks get a second chance to win the Western Hockey League title, when they face off against the Edmonton Oil Kings in Game 1 of the WHL Championship series. They made it to the finals last year, only to lose in a heartbreaking Game 5 against the Kootenay ice. Prior to this, the last time the Hawks got a chance to take back to back runs at the title was 1982 and 1983. In ’82, they won the WHL title. In ’83, they went on to become the first American team to win the Memorial Cup. As the NHL roars through the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the same time, it got me to thinking about second chances, and how they are just as precious in hockey as they are in life.
For yours truly, watching on Sunday as the Pittsburgh Penguins fell to the Philadelphia Flyers was like watching the end of the world as we know it. I forgot for about 24 hours that other teams were still playing in their drive towards the Cup and that in fact, the WHL and NHL post seasons were in full swing. After hearing that Florida and New Jersey were in a heated battle and Phoenix was on the brink of eliminating Chicago, I came back to life. There is still much hockey to be played, and even though the Pens’ post-season ended far too soon, it was still worth watching. The only question now is whose bandwagon do I get on for the next month and a half?
For hockey fans here in the WHL, Wednesday night is proving to be a Game 7 extravaganza. On the NHL front, some of us are biting our nails because our favorite teams are on the verge of being swept (or not, depending on your team). And here in the Dub, the outcome of two game sevens will determine who will vie for the Western Conference Championship. In Portland, the Winterhawks will face off against the Kamloops Blazers for the chance to advance and defend the title. Across the league, the Tri-City Americans and the Spokane Chiefs will do the same. Sitting here waiting for face off, I started thinking about the Twitter hashtag the boys are using during the playoffs: #allin. If you’ve ever met any of the Portland Winterhawks, you know they mean it. They believe it. And they live it. Shouldn’t we all?
Tuesday night, the Portland Winterhawks set a blitz of new records and racked up a whole scoresheet full of new stats: two players scored two shorthanded goals in one period exactly 33 seconds apart, Brad Ross scored four goals and Taylor Peters racked up all three of his assists on shorthanded goals. But alas, what went up came back down as they fell to a more desperate Kamloops Blazers team 5-4. For my part, I didn’t really need a few more lines or my face or more gray hairs. And I certainly didn’t need a friend telling me this morning that I should chill out because “it’s just a game.” We all know it’s much more than that and playoffs are even bigger; the question of the day is why. If hockey’s just a game and playoffs don’t matter, then how come I just aged about 10 years last night?
On Friday, the Portland Winterhawks will take on the Kamloops Blazers in the second round of the WHL playoffs. It is no ordinary series, this one. The two teams have a history that goes way back, and both boast all sorts of good hockey names, NHL talent and winning records. Portland finished third in the Western Conference this year, right behind the second place Blazers, who ended the season on top of the B.C. Division. I find that when one is getting amped up for a playoff series against an opponent like the Blazers, the top priority is to meet said opponent. So I did. Well, ya’ know, on paper.
The WHL playoffs got underway this weekend, and less than a week later the Portland Winterhawks are one game away from eliminating the Kelowna Rockets in a 4-game sweep. The Rockets are a is fighting to stay in the series and they will receive reinforcement tonight with the return of Brett Bulmer, who has already served a one-game suspension in Tuesday’s game. Which is deceptive when you realize that he racked up 23 minutes of penalties in Game 2, including three kneeing penalties, the final of which resulted in a game misconduct and the suspension. Did the punishment fit the crime? Of course not. It’s hockey, after all. No one said it was fair. But the bigger issue is player safety; at what point is it clear a player is beyond caring about who he hits or hurts? This is the junior leagues, but the same topic has been just as hot in the NHL. Which got to me to thinking about hits, fights and other on-ice violence: How far is too far? Why do players cross the line into recklessnes and injury to opponents? And how do the people charged with enforcing player safety make the right call?
Right about now the one and only Sven Bartschi is in your town, getting ready for his NHL regular season debut. It’s hard to lose him right when the Portland Winterhawks are locked in a tight race for Division and Conference titles, but we are thrilled for him. Come Friday, you will get a glimpse of what we have been privileged to watch for the past two seasons. So allow me to share with you what he’s been up to these past six months, along with some tips for taking the greatest of care with your prize.
With the WHL regular season nearing its end later this month and the NHL Entry Draft drawing ever closer, now seems like a good time to take a closer look at a few of the draft-eligible Portland Winterhawks who are on the verge of breaking out. One of my favorites is Taylor Leier, an 18-year-old left winger from Saskatoon who significantly increased the value of his draft stock this past weekend when he scored the game winning and empty net insurance goals in a game against the Tri-City Americans, with whom the Winterhawks are in a heated race for first place in the WHL’s U.S. Division. When he’s not busy improving his draft chances, Taylor is getting ready to play on Canada’s U-18 ball hockey team in the World Championships this June. Which is why now would also be a good time to tune into Taylor’s frequency; because it’s 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