Hawks look to future

As team ends an awful season, players see better things coming
by:  L.E. BASKOW, It’s been a long season for goalie Kurtis Mucha and the Portland Winter Hawks.

A long, losing season comes to an end Sunday for the rebuilding Portland Winter Hawks. Inside the locker room, players say they have not dwelled on the 59 losses in 69 games this season, or the 27 wins in the past 141 Western Hockey League games. Why, and how, you might ask? “I think they can see where we’re going,” first-year coach Rich Kromm says. “Like last weekend against Seattle (a 4-3 Portland win), we played a good team and were able to take it to them. Our players see the potential we have.” The victory ended a team-record 22-game losing streak and came only after goalie Kurtis Mucha stopped 26 of 28 shots in the third period. But the Winter Hawks have been playing more close games of late and, in junior hockey, hope springs eternal with mostly teenagers dotting the roster. “We want to finish the way we’re going to start next year,” defenseman Travis Ehrhardt says. “Play strong hockey and carry it into next season. “We haven’t given up on the year, nobody has. Coaches have kept pushing us in practice. Guys just want to play. It comes down to wanting to win.” Much of the optimism stems from the young players, including the five 15-year-olds who have made their debuts this season: Brad Ross, Taylor Peters (who has two goals), Daniel Johnston (who has been solid defensively), David Watt and Joe Morrow. Kromm says the Hawks could have as many as seven rookies next year. He expects to contend for the playoffs. In two years, he thinks the Hawks can be a championship-level team. “We’re a young team, and there’ll be a big advantage when we’re 18- and 19-year-olds,” Tristan King says. “We’ll be mature after going through all this losing. “We won’t have another year like this year, I guarantee that. Next year will be better for the fans, and they deserve it.” The Hawks will score the fewest goals and give up the most in the WHL for the second consecutive year; they’re at 124 and 302, respectively, going into today. So, obviously, everything needs to improve. Injuries depleted the defensive corps, but everybody returns next season, highlighted by the mobile and offensive Ehrhardt, 18, an early-season acquisition who will end up leading the Hawks in scoring this year. “He’s just starting to be dominant, and he will be part of our leadership,” Kromm says. Everybody returns on the back end, including expected overage Scott Gabriel, improving rookie Brett Ponich, fledgling prospect Bo Montgomery, young Travis Bobbee and three players back after shoulder surgery: Lee Morrow, Ryan Kerr and Brock Cornish. Throw Watt and Johnston into the mix, and there will be good competition to be part of the three top pairings. “We need, as a team, to be a better defensive club,” Kromm says. “Not giving up 50 shots a game starts with the back end, and it’ll be much more mature.” Kromm sees his players making an offensive jump next season, particularly the line of King, Luke Walker and Colin Reddin, who will all be 18 years old. They have combined for 19 goals and 29 assists this season. King, from Minnesota, “has to be a guy who puts numbers up,” Kromm says. “He should be pushing 70 points. He has the skill.” Swystun, who will be 20, has been Portland’s most consistent forward. European Radim Valchar also has been consistent, and the Hawks expect him back next season. Chris Francis has the chance to score, after playing mostly defense this year. With Matt Schmermund, “with his speed and shot, he should be a 20-goal scorer,” Kromm says. Ross should make the team and be another scorer. “It’s not easy to score in this league, but we need to have good balance — a bunch of 20- and 30-goal guys,” Kromm says. Mucha likely will return for his fourth season, and backup Jordan White will be an overage. The Hawks lack a goalie prospect ready to be a backup. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.