Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

The plus/minus of being a junior hockey fan

After two spectacular comeback and championship seasons, Portland is dealing with the aftermath of downloading a good chunk of our star-studded roster to the NHL. One year ago, we had 10 draftees on the roster, eight of whom were all taken in the 2010 Entry Draft. Sven Bartschi had just blown into town. This season, we lost four overage players to the AHL (three draftees and one signed as a free agent), and two are still with their NHL teams. In addition, their departures have lowered the average age and average height of the team, as two of them were 6’7” (Brett Ponich) and 6’5” (Riley Boychuk). It’s like the junior hockey version of a Stanley Cup hangover. But there are good things too, like our fresh new ‘95 born talent and the chance to watch Sven and Ty Rattie step up to lead the team. It’s all just part of the ebb and flow of being a junior hockey fan.

It wasn’t until this weekend, when the Hawks lost on the road to Everett, won at home against Prince Albert and then fell yet again to the Tri-City Americans that I realized the road to defending those US Division and Western Conference Championship banners we just hung is going to be a long one. And as is often the case in life, it’s only just now that I am truly appreciating how fortunate we’ve been these past few years. That being said, if you live in or about to move to a junior hockey town, here are a few things to keep in mind about the ups and downs of being a fan in the junior leagues:

The trouble with shooting stars is that they don’t last long. I could swear it was only yesterday that Portland was learning how to pronounce Nino Niederreiter’s last name and wondering who that boy in the #19 jersey was. I still remember seeing Brett Ponich play before he was Captain, and meeting Ryan Johansen at pizza night like it just happened. And now, they are off and running to bigger and better things, and that’s as it should be. The junior leagues are only the first step on the road to greatness, after all. And the plus is that we get to know the NHL’s future before they hoist cups and sign gazillion dollar deals. We get to watch while they grow up and grow into the stars they will soon be. The minus is it doesn’t last long and we have to let them go. The moral of the story is appreciate every second you get to watch them and know them, because it will be gone before you know it.

New season, new roster. One of the biggest plusses of junior hockey is that each season brings a whole new crop of young players, eager to take the next big step in their hockey career. In junior, you can guarantee each year will bring something new. But you can also guarantee that you’ll miss the players you downloaded to the NHL, AHL, college or whatever else the future holds. The moral of the story is that one takes the sting out of the other. And thanks to Twitter and Facebook and the Internet, we can keep track of hockey’s future wherever they go. 

You win some, you lose some. Last year’s Portland Winterhawks roster was built for a championship run. If ever there was a team that was going to have a shot at the Cup, that was it. It’s not that this year’s team won’t. But it will be a harder uphill battle and it will mean that fans will have to weather some losing streaks before it’s all said and done. But that’s what makes the moral of this story all that much sweeter: the best victories you gain are the ones you earn by losing first.

The highways worth traveling come with a few potholes. The transition from junior to the NHL is a bit like the lyric in that Joni Mitchell song, “Circle Game”: dreams lose some of their grandeur coming true. The plus of junior is that you get to watch and know players like Ryan and Nino while they go from being rookies to draftees to the season after that when they donned the A. We get to see them when they are still young and it’s all possible, long before the world has taught them a thing or two and their dreams have lost some grandeur coming true. The minus is that when they do graduate, you have to face reality, like opening up the box score and seeing zeroes next to Ryan’s name after his NHL debut. Or reading press statements that Nino has been placed on injured reserve. They are both so excited to be where they are, I don’t think they see these early days as anything more than a temporary blip. For me, I know they will deliver on the promise they showed while they were here; you could see it then, and you can see it now.

Parting shots: The very hardest part of being a junior hockey fan is that no matter how long a player is with us, sooner or later we have to let them go. But the best part is that we knew them back when. Back when Joe first fired his rocket of a shot into the net for the first time, when Ty scored the OT game winning goal against Spokane that put them in the playoffs for the first time in four years, the night Brad Ross and Nino both got hat tricks in one game, and of course, when they scored five goals in 1:59 in a game against the Chiefs. There will never be moments like that again. They only come once in a lifetime. So the moral of the junior hockey story is that there is only a short time when young players are ours, all ours. We can’t hang on to them forever, but we can enjoy every moment while it lasts.

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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