Winter Hawks loyal backers chant: No NHL

Team's backers say the city is doing just fine without the pros

At 15, Jennifer Edwards may not be an expert in economics, but she is an authority on the Portland Winter Hawks. And, while there are Portlanders who have plopped down money for deposits on season tickets just in case a National Hockey League team decides to relocate, she is pessimistic about the pro game coming to Stumptown.

The reason is simple: money.

'I don't think Portland has enough money,' she says about Portland's ability to support an NHL team. 'Maybe they can afford it in Seattle or Spokane, but I don't think we can do it here.'

Edwards, of course, is biased against the NHL and has brought signs to Portland games that read 'No NHL.'

Most of the 300 fans who showed up at the team banquet Tuesday at the Rose Garden were squarely behind Edwards' line of thinking, too Ñ at least the part where Portland doesn't want the NHL.

Inexpensive tickets, unspoiled athletes and a family atmosphere have long been the hallmark of junior hockey, and those aspects continue to help the Hawks thrive in the new millennium.

As Portland embarks on its playoff run, starting with a first-round series against Seattle, its fans remain one of the most important parts of the team.

Hawks Vice President Jann Boss says Portland is known throughout the league not only for playing in a large venue (Memorial Coliseum or the Rose Garden) but for its fervent fans.

'I just talked to a writer from Seattle, and he's writing something about how the Thunderbirds expect a lot of people from Portland to drive up to the game there,' Boss says. 'They're happy they're playing us in the first round because they'll draw better. And a lot of those fans will be our fans.'

Portland has had the 10 largest regular-season crowds, including the WHL record of 19,103.

And seven of the top 10 season attendance totals belong to Portland. Spokane has the other three.

Portland annually ends up first or second for best fans in a poll conducted by the Tri-City Herald in Washington state.

'Our fans aren't necessarily so opposed to the NHL as they are to losing their team,' says Boss, mindful that an NHL team in Portland would force the Hawks to move elsewhere. 'There's a lot of hockey people here, and we've been fortunate to have them as fans.'

WHL in Portland

While the recent 'NHL 2 Portland' campaign wrapped up with about 10,000 fans signing up for tickets, some including down payments, the Hawks rolled through another season of strong attendance. They averaged more than 6,700 for 36 home games at its two venues.

People in Portland never seem to get tired of the revolving door of 17- to 20-year-olds who find their way into a Hawks uniform with the dream of getting to the NHL.

They stay with host families, go to local high schools and travel on buses to far-off locales.

'That's what makes the Hawks fun to watch, the fact they're trying to get somewhere,' says Edith Polf of Southeast Portland, who has been a Portland hockey fan from the day the Memorial Coliseum opened. 'When you see them in a pro uniform, you can say you watched them when they were just a kid.'

Carl Savage of Vancouver has been a fan since the team arrived in Portland from Edmonton, Alberta, in 1976. What didn't hurt the franchise was winning division titles in three of its first four years in Portland and advancing to the WHL Finals in just its third year in the town.

Savage now spends time at the Hawks' training camp in Kimberly, British Columbia, and follows the team when it goes on its swing into Saskatchewan each year.

'When you go on that tour, you get to meet a lot of the parents of players,' Savage says. 'That's really neat because the parents are so thankful the team does a good job and the fans are so involved.'

Would these Hawk fans attend games of a Portland NHL team? Sure, but only to a degree. Portland's average ticket price is $11. In the NHL, it's $51 for those teams in the United States.

'My season ticket costs around $400 now, and I can sit behind the goal,' Savage says. 'I wouldn't get to sit there nearly as much with an NHL team. I'd probably only go once or twice a season.'

On Tuesday, the Portland players gave tours of their locker rooms at both the Rose Garden and Memorial Coliseum, forcing them to be public speakers.

'That was a little tough,' says defenseman Patrick Wellar. 'I'm not used to speaking in front of people.'

During the tour, right wing Brad Priestlay explained that BEST, the team slogan, was an acronym for 'Brotherhood, Effort, Sacrifice, Today.'

'These are the words we stand by to be successful,' he says. 'We rally around them.'

In the playoffs, the Hawks will need to be at their best Ñ and for 60 minutes. Their knowledgeable fans unanimously agree.

Edwards, who attends Washougal High, is less concerned about how the Hawks do in the playoffs, just as long as they return again next season.

'I really don't care how they do,' Edwards says. 'Whether they win or lose, I'll still be a fan. I'll still be here next year.'

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