In 1974, Burton Cummings from Guess Who sang a song titled, “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon”. The song was about small prairie communities and their blue collar workers. The similarities of that song and the Portland Winterhawks this season are striking. Many of the Portland Winterhawks players hail from such small communities that most people couldn't find on a map and all are players who work in the trenches and rarely look to accolades for themselves personally.
It's all about the team and what a team this has become. Fresh off a 6-game performance that took the Ed Chynoweth WHL trophy over the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Hawks now set their sights on the ultimate Junior Hockey prize, the Memorial Cup.
The on ice presentation of the cup to the Winterhawks was short, as Troy Rutkowski literally ripped the trophy from the hands of WHL Commissioner Ron Robison to present to the team, thus limiting Robison's on air appearance to mere seconds.
Right after the win in Edmonton, a phone call was made to one man who single-handedly led this team without being behind the bench for the majority of the season. General Manager and Head Coach Mike Johnston, who had been suspended around Thanksgiving by the WHL, took the call from Travis Green, who then allowed the players via speaker to let the coach know what they had done. For certain, Mike couldn't hear all the words, between the screaming and a few colorful words thrown in, but the message was clear, they had captured the Cup.
With a quick confirmation from the WHL Commissioner Ron Robison, who hasn't been much of a friend to the Winterhawks this season, a decision was made to have the team meet the fans after they landed from Edmonton, and a special guest of honor would greet them at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum and subsequent victory party two days later. Waiting for the team at the Coliseum was none other than Mike Johnston, who received a thunderous ovation from close to 1,200 fans and an overwhelming number of hugs, high-fives and well wishes from the players whom he hadn't seen in almost 7 months. His told the media there that this team was like family, children and that not being able to be around them for such a long time was definitely difficult.
The event was put together in 3 hours via social media. With rain pouring down, most likely the tears from WHL Commissioner Ron Robison, the crowd chanted, cheered and celebrated the Evil Empire.
The victory party at Pioneer Square two days later drew another capacity crowd. Each of the captains on the team brought forth a trophy. The Scotty Munro, the Western Conference, the Scholastic and the Ed Chynoweth Cup were placed at the front of the stage for photo opportunities. There was a space left next to the Chynoweth Cup, however, as they have one last accomplishment before they can call the season over and fully successful.
The team players came forward to speak at the victory party and both Captain Troy Rutkowski and Alternate Captain Taylor Peters touched on the struggles the team went through when they first arrived and the struggles the team went through with the loss of their coach and mentor. However, the Winterhawks would not be denied and would look forward to another celebration in the square in 2 weeks once the Memorial Cup had been decided.
The celebration lasted an hour before the players returned to the bus, back to practice and a flight out a day later to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and a shot at making more history. Mike Johnston said he would fly to Saskatoon, but wasn't sure if he'd be allowed in the building.
The four teams, Halifax Mooseheads from the QMJHL, London Knights from the OHL, Portland Winterhawks from the WHL and Saskatoon Blades, the host team, will do battle in a round robin format, the winner to be crowned Memorial Cup Champions. Tomorrow, we'll look at the 4 teams competing in the road to the cup.
Stuart Kemp is President of the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.