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Remaking the Hawks

New owners have big changes in store for Portland hockey
by: JIM CLARK, Joking that he knew they’d be firing some tough questions at him, Winter Hawk co-owner Jack Donovan donned a hockey helmet before opening the floor to fans at a public forum Tuesday at Claudia’s sports bar in Southeast Portland.

Enthusiastic and ambitious, new Portland Winter Hawks' impresario Jack Donovan envisions sweeping changes for the Western Hockey League team.

A spiffed-up Memorial Coliseum and marketing through television top the list, including Donovan's ultimate goal:

He wants to establish a television network for the five U.S. Division teams - a full-go within three years. Donovan, who purchased the Winter Hawks with two other men last spring, has talked with team executives from Spokane, Tri-City, Seattle and Everett. He says WHL Commissioner Rob Robison has approved the broadcasting sharing plan.

The Winter Hawks plan to broadcast about 30 games on Comcast (14) this year and share the broadcasts via satellite with other cable systems in Oregon. They also will televise at least one road game at Spokane and possibly pipe games through Shaw Cable in British Columbia.

'We're trying to take the lead and do as many games as we can,' says Donovan, who held a town hall-style public forum Tuesday at Claudia's sports bar in Southeast Portland. 'It would literally open up the Northwest and into Canada.

'We need to do it to build more hockey fans,' he adds during an interview at his coliseum office. 'It's better to go slow and easy,' with the most pressing need to get buildings in the four other U.S. cities wired for satellite feeds and broadcast.

The Winter Hawks have leased a production truck, a hand-held camera and three stationary cameras. A test run is set for Sept. 30 against Kelowna, with the operation going live Oct. 1 against Kamloops from Memorial Coliseum on Comcast.

Eventually, Donovan wants every Winter Hawk home and road game on television.

It's a whole new ballgame with the Winter Hawks since Donovan, Jim Goldsmith and Jack Bryant took over as owners. Donovan became president and aggressively took on coliseum and marketing issues, allowing Ken Hodge to focus solely on being general manager.

By Thanksgiving, Donovan says he 'hopes and dreams' that Memorial Coliseum will be adorned with a scoreboard with four 8-foot-by-8-foot screens, as many as 16 42-inch plasma televisions installed by exits inside the bowl ('computerized to be like a modified, mini-wrap') or on the concourse, color Winter Hawk photos hanging throughout the concourse, a team store, bustling meeting rooms, a Winter Hawk on-ice logo three times the size of the previous one, and many more food and beverage options.

With the city's financial help, expect the menu to include barbecue pork and chicken, soup and bread bowls, deli sandwiches, a burrito stand and an all-you-can-eat buffet for $14 (featuring burgers) to $35 (crab cakes). Beer and soda feeder lines have been changed to improve freshness, Donovan points out.

Arrival of the video replay screens and televisions has been delayed after they received salt-water damage on shipment from China to Los Angeles Harbor.

Donovan says the new owners are making a 'substantial' and 'long-term' investment while continuing to apply pressure to the city and landlord TIAA-CREF to re-do the team's cumbersome lease.

'This team was hemorrhaging money - period - and they weren't going to last,' Donovan told 30-some fans at Claudia's. 'They could have been the expansion team in Chilliwack. The league told us coming in they wanted to repair (the Hawks).'

As much as 30 percent of Winter Hawk ticket revenue goes to others, much higher than the typical 6 percent. Says Donovan: 'The lease is antiquated, terrible … it was made to give (Blazer owner) Paul Allen as much money as possible. It wasn't designed for the Winter Hawks. I don't know if we'll ever get it straightened out, but we're working on it.'

Thirty of 36 home games will be in the coliseum, the other six in the Rose Garden.

'In order to survive, we have to make the coliseum work,' Donovan says.

Selling coliseum naming rights also will be discussed with the city, he says. Basically, Donovan wants the Winter Hawks to 'take possession' of the coliseum.

Donovan says the team could not remain 'status quo.' The decision to eliminate radio broadcasts and go exclusively with Internet audio streaming at www .winterhawks.com came easily.

'It was darn near impossible to sell (radio ads),' Donovan told the Claudia's audience.

If the all-TV, no-radio strategy doesn't work, 'we have to adjust again,' Donovan adds, saying that the team could consider moving back to radio on a more popular station and with a better economic situation; high-definition radio is a possibility in the future, as well.

Fans won't see all the changes. Behind the scenes, the Winter Hawks' locker room has been painted in red and black team colors. Nameplates featuring ex-Winter Hawks who play in the NHL will be added above the lockers. The old Blazer locker room will be made into an education/study room - 'a sanctuary,' Donovan calls it. And the players will get new stationary bikes.

jasonvondersmith@portlandtribune .com