Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

Hello NHL, Portland Calling

It’s been a busy week here in the Rose City: the Winterhawks released their pre and regular season schedules just days before several players were drafted into the NHL. And of course, there’s the buzz that the proposed NHL expansion has already generated. I would argue the NHL is already here, in the form of its future. This weekend, Paul Bittner, Adin Hill and Caleb Jones (brother of Seth) became the next generation of Winterhawks drafted into the NHL. Just like that, Columbus has become the new Portland, courtesy of Paul's former linemate Oliver Bjorkstrand and fomer Winterhawks Ryan Johansen and Brandon Dubinsky. And if by some chance the Coyotes were to move to Rip City, Adin Hill would land right back where he started.

Columbus is the New Portland. When he began his rookie season with Portland, Paul Bittner was the youngest active playing player in the WHL. As a late birthday (11/4/96), he was still 15 years old at the start of the 2012 – 2013 season. Not that you’d really notice; he was already 6’4” and showed early promise from day one in training camp. In three seasons with the Portland Winterhawks, he graduated to the top line, where he played for most of the past season with Nic Petan and fellow Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand. During that time, he also set career-highs on all fronts, with 34 goals and 37 assists for 71 points in 66 games. At first glance, you might take him for an all-finesse forward, but look deeper and you’ll see a versatile athlete who’s not afraid to play a physical game. Beyond the ice, Paul is a native son of the ultimate hockey state, Minnesota; sturdy and built to last. I must admit, I was a little bummed he wasn’t chosen in the first round as expected, but good things come to those who wait. In the coming season, I expect to see Paul mature on the ice and become more of a team leader. Beyond that, the real question is which Columbus prospects jersey do I wear on Blue Jackets game day? Johansen, Bjorkstrand or Bittner? Decisions, decisions…

City of brotherly love. Caleb Jones was the blockbuster headline of the 2014 – 2015 season. Seth's younger brother signed with the Hawks in April after playing last season for the United States National Development U18 Team, where he had six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 65 games. Like his brother, he's already the talk of the town. I have yet to meet Caleb beyond a quick hello during playoffs, but if his brother is any indication, the Winterhawks’ future is secure. Fun with numbers: Caleb was drafted 117th overall by the Edmonton Oilers.  A few years back, former Winterhawk Captain Taylor Leier was drafted 117th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, which was his original Central Scouting draft ranking.

Geography lesson. Goalie Adin Hill made his first appearance in Portland at training camp in 2013. He still had some growing to do, but I can still remember saying out loud to a fellow fan that we were looking at the future starting goaltender for the Winterhawks. Today, Adin is the starter without question. Some experts might wonder where the heck he came from, but not Portland.  Adin quickly went from a virtual unknown backup to starter when Brendan Burke was traded to Calgary. Adin went 31-11-1-0 with two shutouts in his first full WHL season, and led all WHL goalies with a .921 save percentage and tied for ninth with a GAA of 2.81. Even more impressive is his signature move: giving his signed game stick to the child who hands out the three stars, which he received on a regular basis this season. Behind the quiet young man with the best skin I’ve ever seen on a teenager is a story that proves just how small the hockey world really is. Adin was drafted by the Coyotes 76th overall.  They were the same team that drafted Brendan, who, as the son of Sean Burke, was a true native son. Never signed by the Coyotes, Brendan was traded earlier this year to the Calgary Hitmen, who play in Adin’s hometown. If you didn’t know who the heck Adin Hill was before draft day, I suggest tuning in to his frequency, because it’s about to get very loud.

Expand your horizons. The minute Glendale announced it was voting the Arizona Coyotes off the island, Portland immediately became a potential re-location city. “NHL to Portland” has been bandied about ever since Bill Gallacher bought the team and rumors began to fly that he was shopping for an NHL team It turns out that he and his checkbook were more interested in Switzerland, but the talk about moving an NHL team to Portland never died. If you think about it from a certain perspective, the NHL is already here, in the form of its future. Major league athletes around these parts tend to hole up in their trophy mansions and are rarely seen around town, save for the occasional odd community event or the corner tables of the city’s top-tier restaurants. The Winterhawks, on the other hand, go to our local high schools, they make friends with local young people and they live with local families. Former players still come back every year to reconnect at training camp or playoffs. If the NHL came to town, it would probably come at the cost of the Winterhawks leaving. While I would be thrilled to have the best of both worlds, if it came to choosing one or the other, I’d choose the Winterhawks. There’s something special about seeing future superstars blossom into major league players right before your very eyes and there’s no greater example of that than draft day. It’s the day boys become men and the dream that brought them to our city is realized. Local fans are a part of that dream, and we are proud to say that players consider Portland a second home long after they’re gone. I can hop a plane to Vancouver, Los Angeles or San Jose and be at an NHL game in a matter of hours. Or I can hop in my car and see the NHL’s future in all its youthful glory in a matter of minutes. I’ll take the latter, because here in  Rip City the future is now and with players like Paul, Caleb and Adin and player-to-watch Cody Glass on the roster, the future is bright.

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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

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com