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Hawk changes can be baffling

Finally, a Portland Winter Hawks game in the Rose Garden. Yes, Saturday night the Hawks finally get out of their cave next door, Memorial Coliseum, and meet Tri-City in a 7:30 game. And since the game is a bit of a benchmark for the junior hockey team, it's time to check in on the Hawks.

After all, there were a lot of changes for the team this season. No radio games, plenty of games on cable television, new start times and promises of renovations at MC - which the team calls home for all but four games of the regular season. So how is it going?

Well, let's take a look at some of the big changes, one by one:

• Start times: The Hawks moved their games back to 7:30 p.m., away from the traditional 7 p.m. starts that most franchises use everywhere. The team's president, Jack Donovan, says it's a rousing success.

'Traffic patterns (in Portland) have changed dramatically,' Donovan says. 'People can't get home from work and then back to the game by 7. My personal opinion is, the Blazers ought to look at starting at 7:30. We have had just one single complaint - from a woman who didn't want to keep her kids out that late.

'But our games are faster than they used to be, and I think fans are getting out at the same time they used to.'

Maybe. But I've heard many complaints. It's impossible to find a parking spot when there is a 7 p.m. event at the Rose Garden.

• All the games on local cable television: Donovan gushes over viewership and says he's pleased about the number of people watching. 'Down the road, from a long-term standpoint, I've got advertisers who will buy that,' he says. 'We're hitting a lot of people.'

Again, maybe so. But until he can get those people from their couch to the games, I'd be skeptical about long-term benefits.

• Renovations at memorial Coliseum: So far, the concourses have been spiffed up a little. But the big-ticket item - replay screens - has still not arrived. 'I believe they are now on a boat in the Los Angeles harbor,' Donovan says. 'It shouldn't be too much longer.'

All I can say is, hockey is the worst sport not to have replays.

• No games on the radio: Donovan says he's not anti-radio. 'I would love to have the games back on radio. I just want to know I'm getting my money's worth in terms of reach,' he says.

What I would say about that is I feel less connected to the team this season than any other, in good part because the Hawks were a fixture on my car radio dial. It's how I kept up with them. Others tell me the same thing.

And I would also offer that it seems to me the team has misplaced the niche it once had in this town. The Hawks don't seem to have the buzz, don't seem to be as important as they once were.

I've followed them since they arrived in town. I've seen more of their games than any reporter in Portland. And what I believe is this: There's something missing right now with the Winter Hawks, and it isn't just the winning.