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Winterhawks have found their way again

On Sports
by: Christopher Onstott Craig Cunningham, a center with 42 points in 35 games since coming to the Winterhawks this season, has appeared in 58 playoff games during the past four seasons with Vancouver.

There once was a variety of ideas on what to do with Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but that’s been pared to the one that will be presented at a May 18 City Council meeting. The Winterhawks have a firm grasp of what they want to see done. Last week, during a walkthrough in the coliseum by members of a committee with representatives from the Trail Blazers, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the Portland Development Commission and Mayor Sam Adams’ office, “a matrix of changes we’d like to see in the building” was offered, Winterhawks President Doug Piper says. The city owns the coliseum, and the Blazers have operating rights for the building. The Winterhawks have a lease for the coliseum that ends in 2013, and the resurgent Western Hockey League team is looking to sign another 20-year lease to be the arena’s prime tenant. If Piper and his team of Winterhawk executives have their way, they’ll join with the city as a private equity partner to finance renovations to the building, and the Blazers will extend a long-term lease that will increase revenue streams to help the Hawks cover their investment. “We will work with the Blazers and AEG to run this thing together,” Piper says. The Hawks are looking at an 8,000-seat arena with a National Hockey League-sized rink (the current one is 15 feet smaller than NHL dimensions). Under the Winterhawks’ plan, the building would be gutted, with new seats (with a width increase from 19 to 22 inches), a new scoreboard and replay screens, a club level (but no suites), party areas, an acoustic upgrade for concerts and something to honor war veterans. Piper isn’t willing to provide an estimate for cost of the renovation, but one source told me it would be in the neighborhood of $30 million. The Winterhawks envision it being their permanent home, with only a couple of games a year held in the Rose Garden. I’ll be convinced it’s a good idea to abandon the hockey-friendly Rose Garden once I see the current version of the coliseum gas-piped and a 21st century replacement erected. “If this building is done right,” Piper says, “with new glass, ice and electronic signage, it’ll be a fantastic hockey venue. It’s a cool building — it’s just tired.” Building a foundation This probably couldn’t have happened three years ago, when the Hawks — under the much-beleaguered ownership group of Jim Goldsmith, Jack Donovan and John Bryant — were the dredges of the WHL, posting a season record of 11-58-2-1. League officials basically drove out the owners and found Calgary businessman Bill Gallacher to take their place. When Piper came aboard in November 2008, about a month after Gallacher bought the club, he walked into a train wreck. “The team was really broken,” Piper says. “It was insane how they had run it into the ground in so many areas. They had stopped spending money on anything and everything. They were down to nine full-time employees. Game operations in either building was atrocious. They had stopped all community relations activities. “There was no presence out on the marketplace. The team had lost all relevance. The brand had been completely wiped out, except for a teeny-tiny base of hard-core fans who stayed through thick and thin.” Piper, a former NHL executive with Carolina and Edmonton who was president of a sports consulting firm in Portland when hired by the Winterhawks, went to work restructuring the organization and mending fences with the Blazers and AEG. The Hawks dropped a pending lawsuit against the Blazers over their lease agreement that had been tendered by the previous regime. “We started hiring at a rapid rate,” Piper says. “We’re at about 40 full-time employees now. “When I came in, the office was a complete mess. We put stuff in storage, then re-carpeted, repainted and cleaned everything up.” The Hawks bolstered their sales staff and tried to reconnect with sponsors. This came as the recession hit. “Not the time to be asking people for financial investments,” Piper says. “But we started seeing good changes on the ice. We were showing that the foundation was being built.” Attendance hit bottom the first year, 2008-09, with an average crowd of 3,648, in part because of increased ticket prices. But the talent level in the players was improving, thanks in no small part to Matt Bardsley, who had been with the Hawks since 1999 as an area scout and took over as director of player personnel in 2008 under the former ownership group. Bardsley, now the club’s director of hockey operations, increased the scouting department from seven employees (one full-time) to 17 (two full-time). New coach/General Manager Mike Johnston, a former NHL assistant, was integral in improving the on-ice product, too. Johnston used his contacts to open up the recruitment of European players, a move that landed such as Nino Neiderreiter, Sven Bartschi and Lucas Sbisa. A playoff favorite Don’t underestimate the role Gallacher has played in all of this, either. “We’ve increased the scouting budget at least twofold” from the previous regime, Bardsley says. “Bill has provided us the resources with which to get the job done.” Before coaches Johnston and Travis Green came on board, the Hawks were having trouble luring players on their draft list. “Parents weren’t sure they wanted to send their sons here,” Bardsley says. That has changed. Portland is again a welcome destination for young players, who know they have a chance to develop their talents and win in one of the league’s premier cities. Attendance improved to 4,437 last season and then to about 5,600 this season. Piper says 6,000 is about the break-even mark financially, so the Hawks are close. “We averaged about 8,400 the last 10 home games,” he says. On Saturday, the Hawks will play host to Everett in the opener of their first-round playoff series. Portland finished with the best regular-season record in the Western Conference and is one of the favorites to claim the WHL championship and represent the league in the Memorial Cup. Who could have dreamed of this three years ago?