Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: You gotta fight for your right to party

Friday in Portland, Oregon had all the makings of a five-star night of hockey. In a WHL Championship rematch with the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Winterhawks were leading the series 3-1 with home ice advantage. The Rose Garden was fully sold out two days in advance of the game and fans were calling for the team to open the extra seats in the upper bowl. The previously elusive Ed Chynoweth Cup was on the line and in the house for a possible Winterhawks victory. Temperatures outside were sizzling around an unseasonably warm 80 degrees. Fifteen seconds into the first period, forward Joey Baker -- who only scored one goal in 64 games in the regular season -- scored the Winterhawks’ first goal. Aye, there’s the rub: it was just a little too perfect. The Oil Kings, facing elimination, rallied to a 3-2 overtime win. Sunday afternoon -- after two previous trips to the 2011 and 2012 WHL finals -- the Winterhawks finally climbed the mountain to the WHL title on the wings of Ty Rattie’s hat trick. The party is underway in Portland, where the Winterhawks will serve as Grand Marshals for the Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade. Friday wasn’t the perfect night we wanted and Sunday didn’t start on a high note either, but that’s what makes the party so great; the team had to fight to earn every inch of it. Which got me to thinking; if hockey was perfect, would we love it as much?

“Bad game, eh?” That’s what a then-injured Taylor Leier said to a few fans in the elevator after the Winterhawks’ home opener, which they lost 5-2 to the Seattle Thunderbirds. It was a losing game to be sure, but not an entirely bad one: the Winterhawks fired 57 shots at Seattle. It just wasn’t the perfect night the defending Western Conference Champions had wanted. The Winterhawks returned the favor the next night by spoiling Seattle’s home opener. There are two times I wouldn’t want to play the Winterhawks; in the wake of a loss and/or on the road. And if it’s both, then this is usually what happens: Portland Winterhawks 6, Seattle Thunderbirds 2.

Pooh: Happy "Winds-day", Piglet.
Piglet: Well... it isn't... very happy... f-for me.
Winnie the Pooh: Where are you going, Piglet?
Piglet: That's what I'm asking myself, where?
Piglet: W-Whoops! P-P-P-Pooh!

Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day – A.A. Milne

Pooh and Bother: The fight to get here started on Wednesday, November 28, when history making sanctions threatened to unravel the team’s collective sweater. Instead, they embraced their status as the “Evil Empire” and struck back  with a regular season that would last for 9 months, 117 regular season points (franchise record), 57 wins (franchise record), 29 road wins (WHL record) 12 shutouts (franchise record) and 7 team records, ultimately extending to four championship titles (U.S. Division, Scotty Munro, Western Conference and WHL) and awards for WHL Rookie of the Year (Seth Jones), scoring trophy (shared by Nic Petan and Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic) and Scholastic Team of the Year. November 28, 2012 will always live in infamy for Portland. What happened two nights later, however, will go down in the record books as one of the greatest moments in Winterhawks history. Refusing to take the sanctions lying down, the team showed the photo and title of suspended head coach and GM Mike Johnston on the jumbotron, announcing him just as they always do. Nothing in the sanctions said they couldn’t, and nothing in the sanctions said fans couldn’t give him a standing ovation. And no snub at the league would be complete unless we donned our festive apparel: the Booster Club sold over 500 “Free Mike J” t-shirts that night to benefit the player’s education fund. Even our former mayor Sam Adams bought one.

"You'll come to see that a man learns nothing from winning. The act of losing, however, can elicit great wisdom. Not least of which is, uh... how much more enjoyable it is to win. It's inevitable to lose now and again. The trick is not to make a habit of it." – Albert Finney, A Good Year

“Uh-oh. Are we going to lose now?” That’s what a kid in my section said in response to what many believe was the turning point of Game 5 last Friday. Otherwise rock solid and near-perfect goalie Mac Carruth strayed too far from his crease and passed the puck right to Michael St. Croix, who scored into the wide open net to give Edmonton a 2-1 lead. Brendan Leipsic temporarily saved the day with the game tying goal that sent the game to overtime, but the Edmonton Oil Kings would prevail with the win. Sunday afternoon didn’t exactly get off to a perfect start either: Mac fumbled the puck dangerously close to the net and Derrick Pouliot inadvertently helped the Oil Kings score when the puck defected off his skate. Then Chase De Leo was hit with a double minor for high sticking Henrik Samuelsson. Perfect it was not, but if it had been, then Ty Rattie wouldn’t have done this:

Rat Trick, anyone? Skating into high pressure situations at high speed is just another day at the office for Ty Rattie. Sunday’s trip to the scoring office yielded two shorthanded goals while on that same four minute penalty kill. He completed the hat trick in the second period, setting a new WHL record for career playoff goals (50). He was named the MVP of both the Western Conference and WHL Championship Series. Monday morning, Ty was chosen as the Denny’s WHL Player of the Week for the second time in the playoffs. On Tuesday, he was selected as the CHL Player of the Week.

They scratched the 15-year itch. The Winterhawks became the first American team to win the Memorial Cup in 1983, which also marked the first time the Cup was played under its current format. They won again 15 years later in 1998, with a roster that included Rookie of the Year Marian Hossa and Andrew Ference. If someone asked me how I knew the Winterhawks would finally make it to the Cup this year, I’d simply say that it was time. No matter what else happened this season, it’s fate. But would that fate mean as much if the road to victory had been easy?

The third time’s a charm. It’s a cliché because it’s true. The Winterhawks took their first run at the WHL title in 2011, falling short in a soul crushing Game 5 on home ice. After the game, you could hear the Kootenay Ice celebrating down the hall until well past the time when the Winterhawks had drifted out of the Rose Garden locker room, overstuffed hockey bags in hand, not to return until August. In 2012, the team had it in their sights again, only to fall once more; this time in Game 7 in Edmonton. I’ll never forget the image of Troy Rutkowski on the ice after the game, overcome by emotion after dropping a rare second chance for a win or go home game in his own hometown. Four months later he was named the 37th Captain in Winterhawks history. In March, he was signed by the Ottawa Senators. Five days ago he hoisted the Ed Chynoweth Cup on that same Edmonton ice and became a WHL champion for the first and only time in his junior career; Troy is 21 and must move on and up at the end of this season.

"Every flight begins with a fall." - George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Nobody rides for free. The Winterhawks’ 2012- 2013 season wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t always fun and it certainly wasn’t easy, but if it was, the victory wouldn’t smell as sweet.  When the Winterhawks officially touched down in Saskatoon Wednesday, it was the first time I really, truly believed in the hockey gods. They may not have always been kind to us and those sanctions are proof that hockey hell probably exists somewhere, but think about it this way: Fans, players and assistant coaches Travis Green and Kyle Gustafson had to dig deeper this season and be the very best of who we are every game, all the time. We had to be bigger than Ron Robison and those sanctions and we’re all better for it. As for the four shiny objects they lined up at Tuesday’s victory celebration in Pioneer Square (WHL Scholastic Team of the Year, Scotty Munro, Western Conference, WHL), they would mean nothing if the boys had not earned every inch of them, especially in a year where the team was accused of cheating to win. Winning this season’s battles is also why the Portland Winterhawks are ready to summit one last mountain in Saskatoon.

You gotta fight for your right to party. The Winterhawks earned every shiny object, every Player of the Week and every point they scored the hard way. In November, they had a choice to fall down, give up and give in, but they didn’t. The Winterhawks chose honor, grace, hard work, loyalty and commitment. The rest followed. The Winterhawks fought for their right to party, and they earned all of it. From an imperfect and sometimes ugly season came beauty and hope for victory in one more battle that awaits in Saskatoon. If it had been perfect or easy or beautiful, they might not be here now: they’d be booking tee times in small towns all over Canada and the United States. Playoff hockey is beautiful because it isn’t perfect and because it’s a life or death battle every time players step on the ice. The battle lasted the whole season for the Portland Winterhawks and they have emerged victorious. Last time I saw them at the welcome home ceremony in a small Veterans Memorial Coliseum parking lot on a rainy Sunday night, they were busy signing autographs and hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup. I didn’t get a chance to say hello or goodbye; I’ll save that for later. But if I had asked them “was it all worth it?” I’m pretty sure the answer would be yes. Like life, nothing worth winning comes easy in hockey. And most fans I know, myself included, wouldn't want it any other way.

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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