Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

Hockey t-shirts can teach you a lot about life

The Portland Winterhawks are knee deep in the WHL Championship, where the Kootenay Ice lead the series 2 - 1. The Winterhawks are on the road, but that didn’t stop me from donning my festive Winterhawks apparel. In this case, it’s my 2010 Portland Winterhawks Training Camp t-shirt. I admit to a bit of sentimentality about this shirt: training camp was the first time I officially blogged about the team on oregonlive.com. But it also got me to thinking about how the Winterhawks got to this point. The back of the t-shirt says “the road starts here!” Indeed it did. But it’s where it has ended that makes a much better analogy for life. That being said, what can a pile of hockey t-shirts teach you about life? More than you might think.

We know where my t-shirt collection/Winterhawks season started, but here’s where it has ended: The Winterhawks concluded the season by capturing the WHL’s U.S. Division and Western Conference titles. No matter what happens in this series, the team will open the regular season by raising two banners to the rafters of the Memorial Coliseum. Alongside that training camp t-shirt are two others: the U.S. Division shirt, which reads “we’re kind of a big deal” and the Western Conference Champions tee. The road started back in late August at training camp, where fans and players were still wearing shorts and t-shirts. Luke Walker and Spencer Bennett and Ian Curtis were still with us. Craig Cunningham hadn’t come to town yet. And I interviewed an unknown 17-year-old Swiss rookie named Sven Bartschi. Sven is now a top prospect, Luke is off playing in the AHL, Ian is in college and Spencer is on an amateur tryout contract with the Abbotsford Heat. The Winterhawks are on top of the world. You can see it all right there in my dresser drawer.

The road less traveled: Much fuss was made about the Winterhawks going into this season. They started with 10 NHL Draftees and a gaggle of teenage boys in training camp raring to go. Among them: rookie Brendan Leipsic, voted as the fans’ favorite player of the year; Chase DeLeo who scored the game-winning shootout goal in the Neely Cup and is now signed with the team; Gasper Kopitar, Anze’s younger brother who was sent back to the USHL, where he is reportedly doing very well with the Des Moines Buccaneers; defenseman Josh Hanson, a 16-year-old rookie with Ivy League credentials who has already graduated from high school; and Sven Bartschi, fresh off the plane from Switzerland, having been drafted in the 2010 WHL Euro draft. Brendan is already being talked about as a future draft prospect. He joined fellow rookie Derrick Pouliot at the U-17 World Challenge, where both wore the A for their team. Sven was recently nominated for the WHL’s Rookie of the Year Award. He led all WHL rookies in scoring at the end of the regular season, and he was just voted the WHL Player of the Week for May 2 - 8. When I first met Sven and asked him his goals for the season, he said “I just hope I get to play a lot.” The first time I talked to Brendan, the Hawks had just lost a big game on a Saturday night and he looked like he wanted to crawl under a large piece of furniture and stay there. One night later, he scored on a penalty shot that put Portland ahead 2 -1 in a game against Lethbridge that they would go on to win 6 - 2. Brendan also came up big during Portland’s playoff series with Spokane in Round 2, when he scored the game winning goal in overtime in Game 3. There was so much more along the way (like scoring five goals against Spokane in 1:59), but the rookies on the rise are the best and purest example of just how far the Winterhawks have come this year.

The road less traveled, part 2: They weren’t the only ones who had an unbelievable season. The road to the WHL and NHL playoffs was paved with plenty of reasons to operate with a blown mind. Some good. Some maybe not so much. But that’s hockey. Nobody said the road was easy:

—Prior to this WHL playoff series, the Kootenay Ice went on an 11-game winning streak in which they swept both the Saskatoon Blades and the Medicine Hat Tigers in four games. The Blades are widely regarded as the best team in the league, and they spent the latter part of Game 4 circling the drain. Game 4 against the Tigers was equally stunning. Max Reinhart scored five goals, and Cody Eakin (former Captain of the Swift Current Broncos for whom the Ice paid with an 8-player trade) scored the other two.

—Taylor Hall was the prize catch, but it was rookie and World Junior superstar Jordan Eberle who scored a showstopping first NHL goal. Probably not the best example of how a team started low and ended high, as Hall went down for the season with an injury that occurred during a fight. But still, that goal was very pretty. And with the chance to pick first in the draft again this year, Edmonton’s future is looking up.

—Winter Classic: Could anyone have known when HBO announced plans for the 24/7 series that it would end like it did? The Pens entered the Classic as the host team on a hot streak. They had shoo-in written all over them. Enter the Washington Capitals on a comeback and David Steckel. Sidney Crosby, boy wonder who was seemingly invincible is still down from a head injury (or two) that likely began when Steckel wonked him. And the Washington Capitals, eternally coming up short in the playoffs, resurged just as the Penguins seemed to hit a downturn. Now that I think about it, the Classic might also have been an early sign of playoff things to come.

—The evil plan unfolds in Tampa Bay. I knew when new ownership blew through town and brought Steve Yzerman and Guy Boucher with them, big things were coming. And that they have. I’m in for Tampa as the Eastern Conference Champions.

By marking the beginning and end of this season and everything that happened in between, my hockey t-shirts taught me a thing or two about life:

1) See the forest for the trees. You never know where the road will end, and it’s too easy to get caught up and distracted along the way. Keeping your eye on the prize requires the same things it takes to get through the playoffs: mental and physical stamina, emotional fortitude, faith, commitment, hope and vision.

2) Surround yourself with positive influences. Every time I talk to individual Winterhawks players, they credit their success to their linemates and teammates. When I ask them what they like about Portland, first and foremost they cite this team and how great the other guys are. They win together. They lose together. They fight to defend each other. Individual success is part of why the Winterhawks are getting noticed, but it’s the things they do as a team that outshine the individual stars.

3) Choose well. Tampa Bay rebuilt its empire by choosing well at the top, and those people chose the right mix of players to lead the way on the ice. So did the Winterhawks. Previous trades put them into position to draft Sven, and last year a series of well planned moves made it possible to snatch up Nino Niederreiter. They made a blockbuster trade with the Vancouver Giants mid-season to acquire Craig Cunningham and push to the playoffs. That trade meant the loss of Calgary Flames prospect Spencer Bennett, but he went on to a short but stellar stint with the Giants that put him into good position with the Flames’ organization. It’s like my friend Susan tells me all the time: “do what you love and good things will happen.” Make the right choices, put yourself on the right path and one way or another, you’ll usually end up where you’re supposed to be, even if you take the road less traveled to get there.

4) Learn from your mistakes. Riley Boychuk and Brad Ross are well known around these parts for spending too much quality time in the penalty box. But they have learned over the season, so much so that Riley is now wearing the A on a regular basis. Will a player like Matt Cooke learn from his mistakes? Time and cleaner play will tell, but if he doesn’t he may be out of a job. In hockey, you have to learn fast or the chance won’t come again. Kind of like life.

5) Believe in sights unseen. Throughout this season, despite the Winterhawks’ considerable talent, experts and amateurs alike said “yeah they’re good, but….” and all of it led to they are not good enough to make it to the Cup. They saw the light when no one else did. The believed when everyone else gave up. They knew they could go all the way even when no one else did.  And here they are. Never give in, never give up and never let other people tell you who you should be or what your destiny will be.

Parting shots: I know where I’ve been. What about you? Take a look in your closet, dresser or gym bag, or wherever you keep your hockey t-shirts and jerseys. What do they say about your favorite team, and where they’ve been or where they’re going? What do they say about the things you believe in? I bet you’ll find more than you might think. 


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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