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Above the Glass

Hello AHL, Meet the Portland Winterhawks

I was plotting yet another “lockout, not cool”* type entry, when I realized such rants are an exercise in futility. Instead, I have endeavored to find some measure of goodness in the middle of all this muck. I am very fortunate that the goodness once played hockey in Portland, and that many are now in the AHL, where we can continue to enjoy watching or listening to games from afar. For those who may be looking to do the same whilst we wait out the second NHL lockout in less than a decade, kindly allow me to refresh you on a few of my favorite hockey things.

Brett Ponich: Defenseman, St. Louis Blues/Peoria Rivermen

How he got here: Drafted 48th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2009, the Winterhawks’ former Captain now plays defense for the Peoria Rivermen.  

Best moves while in junior:

  • A fund raising event to benefit a childhood friend who became paralyzed in a pool accident. Items auctioned off included a car wash by rookies that was supervised by Brett, and a dinner date with him and a few other players.
  • A December 18 fight with Spokane Chief Andy Blanke, in which he saluted fans afterwards and cheered us on from the penalty box. Best Winterhawks fight ever.

Why you should tune into his frequency: Brett is a natural born leader whose easygoing demeanor belies a hard working, committed player whom Peoria can also count on as a leader and fan favorite off the ice. 

Fun trivia: When he joined the Rivermen last season, Brett became his own personal trivial pursuit question when he officially became the tallest defenseman in the team’s history; he’s 6’7”.

Six degrees of hockey separation: William Wrenn was chosen 43rd overall by the San Jose Sharks, just five spots ahead of Brett. William chose to leave college and join the Winterhawks in the latter half of the 2010 – 2011 season. At the start of the 2011 – 2012 season, William succeeded Brett as the Winterhawks’ Captain.

Twitter: Brett recently joined Twitter. You can follow him @pony423

Riley Boychuk:  Forward, Buffalo Sabres/Rochester Americans

How he got here: After missing his original draft year due to injuries and surgery, Riley was drafted 208th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2010 Entry Draft, a blockbuster year that saw eight Winterhawks drafted. In the fall of 2011, Riley finally signed a 3-year Entry Level Contract with the Sabres and spent last season playing for either the Amerks or the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators. When I saw him at Winterhawks training camp before he left, he just wanted to make Buffalo’s AHL team. And that he did, for at least part of last season.

Best moves while in junior:

  • Riley achieved a three-peat of the Paul Gaustad Fitness Award, winning it in 2009 (the year it was introduced), 2010 and 2011.
  • He scored the mother of all insurance marker goals by going five-hole on himself with his back to the net. In short, it went like this: with his back to the Vancouver net, he dug the puck out of a pile, barely looked behind him and proceeded to score with a backhanded shot between his legs.

Why you should tune into his frequency: Anyone who’s seen Riley in action knows he’s quick to drop the mitts; he promptly got into a fight on his first shift with the Gladiators.  But when I talked to him a year ago his goal for the season was to be more consistent. Translation: Fewer fights, more of those highlight reel goals. And that quickness to drop the mitts does come with a flip side: many of the fights he got into here were in defense of teammates or linemates like Nashville Predators’ draft pick Brendan Leipsic. Riley’s a diamond in the rough who worked hard to be where is and I would have faith, Rochester. He’s worth the wait.

Six degrees of hockey separation: Riley hails from Abbotsford, BC, where Sven Bartschi has been assigned to the Abbotsford Heat. 

Twitter: He’s not as active as other players on Twitter, but occasionally he posts a kibble or two at @Boychuk91

Sven Bartschi: Forward, Calgary Flames/Abbotsford Heat

His reputation preceeds him, but on the off chance you haven't heard of him: Sven was drafted 13th overall by the Calgary Flames in 2011. But before he did that, he did this: He concluded his rookie season leading all WHL rookies in scoring with 85 points, and was nominated for rookie of the year (he lost to the equally worthy Matt Dumba). In two seasons with the Winterhawks he won two Western Conference titles, one U.S. Division title and racked up 240 points in 156 games played (including playoffs). 

Best moves while in junior: There were so many, it’s hard to choose. These are a few of my favorites:

  • A true overnight sensation, Sven arrived in Portland in the fall of 2010 and quickly put himself on the map with a four point game in the pre-season against the Kootenay Ice.
  • During an epic playoff series with Edmonton, Sven opened the Winterhawks scoring in Game 3 with a last-minute backhand, highlight reel goal. It’s hiding out somewhere in this YouTube clip of his 2012 playoff highlights.
  • Last year, linemate Ty Rattie went on a Rat-Trick/scoring streak that lasted all season. I asked Sven if he was going to try and keep up and score a hat trick himself. He was like “I don’t know, we’ll see, anything can happen, how many games do we have left?” and then promptly went out and scored one a few nights later.

Fun facts:

  • He and Ty Rattie acquired a retro snow cone machine with game tickets they won at Big Al’s, a popular arcade/bowling alley in Portland’s suburbs. No one around these parts, however, has seen a snow-cone as yet. We will report back if we do.
  • His girlfriend helped teach him how to drive, and he nailed the driver’s test on the first try.
  • He’s from Switzerland, but once told a reporter he’s probably one of the few Swiss guys who doesn’t ski.

Road trip: The silver lining in the NHL lockout is that Abbotsford is about five to six hours from Portland. If you live in the area, and the lockout drags on, look for a few Winterhawks jerseys in the house. And enjoy the ride. I know for sure that we did.

Twitter: @SvenBaertschi

Brad Ross: Forward, Toronto Maple Leafs/Marlies

How he got here: Brad was one-third of one of the most staggeringly beautiful lines the Winterhawks have ever unleashed on the WHL: Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter and Brad Ross. He is best known for being the resident agitator, which earned him frequent trips to the penalty box for what Portland fans call "two minutes for being Brad Ross.” Brad was also part of the 2010 draft class, where he was chosen 43rd overall after Brian Burke made a trade for the purpose of drafting him.

Fun facts:
I wouldn’t worry about Brad sitting and ruminating in the penalty box. He actually liked being in there, because his number one fan -- four year old Maddy, decked out in her signed Toronto Maple Leafs jersey -- would come down to talk with him and ask him to score some goals for her. It worked, because promptly thereafter, he usually did. So Toronto, if ever Brad is in a scoring slump and spending too much quality time in the box, give us a call. We have the remedy and I’m sure she’d be happy to travel with her parents to Toronto.

His mom once dressed him up as a pumpkin for Halloween, complete with a hat that represented the top and stem.

His father is a retired RCMP officer. Last season, his older brother Nick played for the Portland Pirates in Maine with former Winterhawk Spencer Bennett.

Why you should tune in: In earning all those penalty minutes, Brad learned how to thrown one mean, beautiful punch and he’s not afraid of anyone or anything. But you should also know that under all the swagger and the fights and the penalty minutes is a genuinely sweet kid who loves fans. It will not take long for Toronto fans to see why we loved him back.

Twitter: @bross1818

Etc: I don’t know the following players as well, unfortunately, but I did see them play and I recommend tuning into their frequency: 

Luke Walker, Lake Erie Monsters. The son of Gord Walker, Luke was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2010 and signed him to a three-year entry deal. He spent what would have been his overage junior year moving on to the next level in Lake Erie, and from what I hear it’s looking good so far.

Oliver Gabriel, Springfield Falcons. Although he had been signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Oliver was the surprise package of the 2011- 2012 WHL season when he returned from a stint with the Falcons to complete his overage year in Portland. His best move while here was scoring his first career hat trick to lead the Winterhawks to their first victory of the season over mortal enemies the Tri-City Americans. The team later went on to sweep the Ams in four games to win the Western Conference title for the second year in a row.

Chris Francis, Las Vegas Wranglers. Signed by the Springfield Falcons in 2010, Chris bounced around a bit before landing in Las Vegas, his hometown.  He was a true fan favorite here in Portland, probably because he left his mark on our city by doing this. He went on to score the game winning goal in a shootout. Enough said.

*One of my favorite lockout-related Tweets comes courtesy of Derrick Pouliot. He didn’t trash the league or single out Gary Bettman or anything like that. He just said in three words what most of us think: “lockout, not cool.” Derrick, BTW, is also famous for a Tweet that I once borrowed for a headline I liked it so much: “turtle eats goldfish in class.”

P.S.: I realize this entry offers little comfort or hope to those of you who are not privileged to live in a junior or AHL town. But there is hope; feel free to join us. This Friday a little glimmer of hope will shine for us all when top prospect Seth Jones makes his WHL debut in Portland’s home opener against the Seattle Thunderbirds. Face off is at 7. No matter where you are on Friday night, you can tune in at www.winterhawks.com. There you can also download their mobile app to listen in.

P.S, Part 2: Your loss, Colorado. Per his teammates Tweets, defenseman Troy Rutkowski has been named the Portland Winterhawks' new Captain. Drafted in 2010 by the Colorado Avalanche, Troy was never signed by the Avs; rookie mistake on their part, in my opinion. Here’s hoping another NHL team will see the light and have the good sense to sign him.

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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