Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

It’s like, how do you say? Up and down?

That’s what top draft prospect Sven Bartschi told me when I asked him what he thought of the WHL playoffs so far in this, his rookie season. I think he meant rollercoaster. Or maybe peaks and valleys. Whether you are wondering how Tampa got all this way and isn’t done yet, how San Jose got so close, or whether you are taking a break to watch the Memorial Cup, he’s right. The playoffs are up and down. Until Monday night the Cup had been a bit of a snore. Enter Tomas Jurco, who generated a few Victoria Day fireworks of his own and brought the tournament back to life when his game-tying goal pushed the Owen Sound vs. Saint John Sea Dogs game to OT. Tuesday, the Kootenay Ice proceeded to rebound from near elimination and beat the Sea Dogs (during which Jurco apparently scored when a shot by teammate Zach Phillips ricocheted off his helmet and fluttered into the goal). On the other hand, why are teams like the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins already booking tee times while Tampa continues its resurgence?  I have a few thoughts. And we know what happens when I do that.

I’m not sure that there is one single answer to these questions, but I do know that teams who get as far as the finals or farther had a few things in their favor. Like this:

When in doubt, sell: The Tampa Bay Lightning’s comeback is due to an avalanche of good business decisions that started when the team was bought by Jeff Vinik, who had the good sense to hire Steve Yzerman as GM. From there, Yzerman hired Guy Boucher, all-around evil genius with a mysterious scar and a master’s degree in sports psychology. There’s something about a fresh start that can bring new life to a player, a coach or a team. In Tampa, the arrival of new owners, new managers and new coaches led to what is essentially a whole new team.

Here in the WHL, the Portland Winterhawks were in grave danger of being sold right out of the city in 2008. Enter Alberta gazillionnaire Bill Gallacher, who bought the team and promptly hired Mike Johnston, former assistant coach for the Vancouver Canucks, and Travis Green, a journeyman NHL forward who was originally drafted by the New York Islanders in 1989. In 2011, the Portland Winterhawks finished the season on top of their conference and division, and they went on to win the US Division and Western Conference titles before falling to the Kootenay Ice in the WHL finals. It was the first time they had gone that far in 10 years. The team recently reaffirmed its long-term investment in Portland with the revamping of the Valley Ice Arena into the Winterhawks Skating Center.

Just like life, selling a team or up and moving it to a new city altogether is a chance to reinvent yourself for the better. I can attest that even when the old town is New York City and the new town is back home in Portland, you don’t have to crawl back with your tail between your legs. In fact, if you do it right, you can go right to the penthouse. And get your very own blog. Two, even. 

Never underestimate the underdog: In the NHL and WHL, they have an annoying little habit of winning. Despite sweeping their previous two playoff opponents in four games—including the Saskatoon Blades—the Kootenay Ice were still considered the underdogs when they rolled into Portland for the WHL Championship finals. They would go on to eliminate the Winterhawks in five games. It was quite a change from 2009, when Portland wasn’t even in the playoffs and still facing the daunting task of proving they were about to become a different team. But that’s exactly how the Winterhawks came to be the favored team: they chose well in recent drafts, they convinced more than a few players to give up college and come here, and while everyone was watching other, supposedly better teams, they started getting onto the scoreboard, into the headlines and out of the junior hockey dungeons. Ditto for Tampa Bay, only they did it in one season and the players are grown adults. But you get the idea. 

Sometimes the best way to hang on is to let go. Notable prospect Sven Bartschi told me how he finally broke a rare scoring drought, it was like he had been holding on too tightly to his stick, waiting to score. It was only after he let go and scored that he went back to scoring again. A lot. He waited for the right moment and he let it rip. The flip side of wanting something too much, of hanging on too tightly, or worrying too much about the outcome is “what if we lose?” And that is exactly what usually happens: the what if becomes reality. Just like Sven’s rejuvenated scoring touch, that is why sometimes the best way to get what you want is to stop wanting it, even if just for a little while.

Plan ahead for the unknown. Another factor in Portland’s elimination from the WHL Championship was what my friend Joanna calls “a little sketch.”  As in refereeing. In the second period, the officials handed 18 consecutive penalty minutes to Portland. Now mind, the Kootenay Ice were on fire, so they could have won with or without the second period. What the second period really stole from the Winterhawks was the chance to score. Both teams only had one shot to grab the Ed Chynoweth Cup, and Portland’s shot was partially blown by the men who were supposedly hired for their commitment to keeping the game fair and honorable and what they did in that period was anything but. But that’s hockey. And what followed was still a great sports moment if ever there was one. Portland rallied early in the third period, scoring three goals within two minutes to come all the way back from a 6 - 2 deficit and narrow the goal deficit to 6 - 5.  The scoreboard didn’t show it, but that was arguably the loudest game of the season, as fans’ applause, cheering and noisemaking drove the noise level above 107 decibels. Portland didn’t plan for what happened in the second period, but Mike Johnston told the media afterwards that they knew if they got the crowd behind them and scored early, they could turn things around in the third period. And that they did. Planning ahead sometimes happens in the second intermission, but when it comes to the playoffs, it’s always better late than never. 

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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