Posted by: bkivey | 4 May 2015

Western Hockey League Conference Finals

Portland is home to three major league sports; the Trailblazers of the NBA, the Timbers in MLS, and the Thorns in NWSL. The Arena Football League is represented by the Thunder, and the Single-A Hops all the way out in Hillsboro for baseball. Then there are the Winterhawks, the major-junior contingent of the Western Hockey League (WHL). For a league made up of teenage boys playing a sport with no real organic presence in the region, the Winterhawks have a loyal fan base. It helps that they win a lot, making it to the post-season the last six seasons, and winning the conference Finals the last four seasons.  Since an ownership change in 2008, they’ve become the New York Yankees of the WHL, earning the moniker ‘Evil Empire’, and a destination team for many players coming up to the major-junior level.

Of the major sports, hockey is perhaps the most blue-collar. The culture emphasizes hard work, discipline, and toughness, even more so than football. Hockey players shrug off and play through injuries that would have a soccer player sidelined for a month. And as with any culture, it has it’s quirks: the singing of the Canadian and American national anthems prior to games, fans throwing hats (or octupi in Detroit) on the ice to acknowledge a hat trick, players expressing appreciation by banging the heel of their sticks on the ice, and acknowledging  a teammate with a light tap of the stick, an oddly touching gesture in a sport featuring hard hits and fast action.

I’ve never been to a Winterhawks game, although I do follow them on the radio.  On Sunday they were playing the Kelowna Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, and money and time converged to create the opportunity to see the game. The ‘Hawks defeated Kelowna last year to win their fourth consecutive Western Conference title, so there is some history between the teams.  I was especially interested in getting a look at Kelowna goalkeeper Jackson Whistle, who’s been playing out of his mind during the series.

The venue was Moda Center in the Rose Quarter, the same building where I watched the Trailblazers earlier this year.  The upper bowl is closed off for hockey, making the seating capacity around 10,000. Although some 8,000 tickets had been sold, when the puck dropped, there looked to be about 6,000 in the building. Kelowna fans were few and far between. My seat was at center ice in the 200 level, because while rink-side seats are good for seeing the action up close, I prefer to get an overview of the game. NHL games I’ve attended have been from the 300 level, which is a bit too much of an overview. And no photos of the game, because for some reason WHL likes to keep lighting at movie-theater levels.

Opening ceremonies included the Canadian and American national anthems, with the Canadian sung first per tradition. The Canadian anthem was sung by a member of Canadian law enforcement; not sure of the branch, and he did a credible job. The Kelowna team applauded in hockey fashion. The American anthem was sung by a women who delivered one of the finest performances I’ve ever heard. She hit every note of a song that’s notoriously hard to sing, and did it with a clarity and depth that was breath-taking. An exceptional performance.

Game action.

The ‘Hawks had to win this game or go home. They came out strong and scored three goals in the first fifteen minutes of the opening period. Hey, things are looking good! As good as the Kelowna goalie had been in the series, it looked like the ‘Hawks had solved him.

But no game is about who scores the most in fifteen minutes, it’s about who has the higher score when the game is done. And it seemed the ‘Hawks slacked off after the third goal, as if to say “Well, that’s enough.” But this is hockey, and any effort but the maximum isn’t enough. This was the conference Finals, Kelowna earned the right to be here, and they weren’t going to roll over. They scored a goal late in the period, and people around me were rooting for the clock. As in, let it roll to zeros so the ‘Hawks can get off the ice. That’s not good.

The second period Kenowa absolutely shelled the Winterhawks goal. They fired some 20 shots-on-goal, and 3 got through, one on a short-handed effort. The score was 4 – 3 in favor of the Rockets. The ‘Hawks got the equalizer in as pretty a play as you’ll see in hockey. A Hawk had the puck beside the Rocket goal, spun 180 degrees to center the puck, and a teammate shot it in from 5 feet. Very nicely done, and the score was tied. The ‘Hawks still seemed to lack intensity, which was curious considering their season was on the line.

Early third period the Rockets scored two goals, so now the ‘Hawks were down two just to equalize, and the clock was becoming a factor. The ‘Hawks coach pulled the goalie, and the Rockets scored almost immediately.  Now down 3, the ‘Hawks on the ice assumed the position of defeat: bent over with stick across knees. People started to leave. A Winterhawk banged the goal with his stick. He knew. We all knew. There would be no fifth consecutive conference championship.

The next series the Portland goalie was on the ice, but was pulled. Another Kelowna score. 8 – 4. Less than two minutes to go, the ‘Hawks goalie was on the ice, but he wouldn’t be needed. At the final horn Kelowna celebrated, and the Winterhawks players on the ice went to their knees. Most cried. If you’ve done your best, there’s no shame in defeat, but that doesn’t make the hurt any less.

Most of the fans stayed to salute the team during the awards ceremony. The players didn’t acknowledge the crowd during the ceremony, although by the hockey code, Kelowna did applaud the Winterhawks in the hockey manner. The crowd stayed and applauded the players throughout the ceremony and the handshakes and after Kalowna left the ice the players did acknowledge the heartfelt appreciation from the audience.

It’s just sports. But for 16 and 17 year-old’s who’ve spent their lives working toward a goal, it’s more. You can argue that maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. For a number of ‘Hawks players, Sunday was the last game of major-junior. Most will probably go into minor-league hockey; some may see the NHL or European leagues. A few may find that Sunday was the last day of their hockey career. They’ve all done well, and I look forward to next season.



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