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A band of brothers

Off the ice, the Winterhawks travel, go to school and get used to life in another country
by: Jaime Valdez Portland Winterhawks players Brett Ponich (from left), Riley Boychuk, Ty Rattie, Ryan Johansen and Tyler Wotherspoon relax at the Cedar Mill home of Susan Howe, who opens her home to hockey players who come from as far away as Switzerland to play for Portland.

In a game where everything can change with a flick of the wrist, the mood at a Portland Winterhawks hockey game can be considerably stressful, especially during the playoffs.

But off the ice at Ty Rattie's house in Cedar Mill, the mood is anything but.

'I think there's a fine line between being on the rink and outside of the rink,' 18-year-old Rattie said Monday as he and team captain Brett Ponich, 20, taught defensemen Tyler Wotherspoon how to play blackjack at the kitchen table. 'When you're at the rink you are there for a reason, and when you're not it's good to get away from the game for a little bit.'

The Winterhawks take on the Everett Silvertips in Game 4 of the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs tonight, but with a day off from practice Monday, the three friends were clearly enjoying their downtime.

'You'd think they were brothers the way they act,' said Rattie's house mother Sue Howe as she made grilled cheese for the boys in the kitchen.

The three act like any other group of 18-year-olds. They insult each other and yell upstairs at 20-year-old forward Riley Boychuck, who is trying to sleep.

But Friday, when the team will arrive back in Portland from their game in Everett, Rattie and Wotherspoon will have little time to themselves.

They've got class in the morning.

'All part of the WHL'

Rattie and Wotherspoon attend Sunset High School in Beaverton, and its not uncommon to get back from an away game at 4:30 a.m., grab a quick nap and then head to school by 7:30.

But Rattie and Wotherspoon take it in stride.

'You've got to be responsible,' Rattie said. 'I think that's part of moving away from home. If you play a game on Wednesday you've got to make sure you get some study -time in. It's got to get done. Sometimes you do just have time to grab a nap and head to class, but it's just part of the WHL.'

Rattie and Wotherspoon are far from their homes in Canada, but they aren't alone. All the Winterhawks players come from far and wide to play in Oregon, where they balance not only their lives as professional athletes, but the rigors of teenage life and adjusting to a new country.

Ponich, 20, lives in Tigard and took online classes from his high school in Canada, and now takes college finance courses.

'It's tough, especially when we're on the road,' he said. '(Coaches) are really strict about school. Everybody has to be in school, even us older guys have to take college classes. But it's worth it.'

At Sunset classmates know about Rattie and Wotherspoon's extra-curricular activities, Wotherspoon said, but few mention it.

'Every once in awhile I'll see somebody in a Winterhawks shirt and they'll tell me I had a good game,' he said.

But for Rattie and Wotherspoon the goal is to be a typical high school student.

'It is a bit different, I came from a school of 300 kids, and here we have a school of 3,000 kids,' Rattie said. 'But I've been able to go to a couple of football games and there is just this huge high school experience here, and it has been one of the funnest experiences since I've been here. I've been able to go to some football and volleyball games with the guys and meet new people, it's just unreal.'

Home sweet home

Winterhawks players range in age from 16 to 21, and during high school take two classes a day before heading to practice at Winterhawks Ice Arena in Beaverton.

This season the team had a weeklong road trip playing against Canadian WHL teams and were out of school for several days.

Wotherspoon and Rattie collected their homework and study materials early, then turned their assignments in when they got back.

'The teachers are really good with it,' Wotherspoon said.

Outside of school, the players also adjust to living in American culture.

Ponich moved to Tigard from a small town in Alberta, Canada.

'I'm a country kid, so it's different coming to a big city like Portland,' Ponich said. 'It's weird having things like traffic. I'm used to country roads where you set the cruise (control) and don't have to turn the wheel for 20 miles.'

When they're in Portland, players live with hosts known as billet families.

'They are like a second family,' said Ponich, who has lived in Tigard since joining the Winterhawks four years ago. 'They have an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old child. I was there when she was pregnant. It's kind of a weird situation but it's pretty cool.'

Rattie's billet mother, Howe, also billets forwards Riley Boychuk and 16-year-old Nicolas Petan. She said she has always treated the players like her own children.

'They have parents and they have the club with all of these things they need to do, so I get to be the good guy with them. That is never the way it is with your own kids.'

Howe's house is often filled with hockey players like Ponich and Wotherspoon.

'They all know they can come over here,' she said, as she hands Ponich a grilled cheese sandwich. 'Here you go, honey,' she said.

'We all loved hanging out here,' Ponich said, taking a bite of the sandwich. 'We don't come to hang out with Boychuk, that's for sure.'

The Winterhawks take on the Everett Silvertips tonight at 7 p.m. They currently own a 2-0 lead in the best of seven playoff series.

The game will be broadcast on Winterhawks.com and on 970 AM radio.