Concerned league, commissioner audit Winter Hawks operation

Ron Robison says helping Portland is WHL's top priority

The Western Hockey League has been auditing the Portland Winter Hawks as it examines the struggling hockey club's on- and off-ice operations.

The league expects to complete the review by the end of April, WHL Commissioner Ron Robison says.

'It's something we have the right to do and we do from time to time, when franchises are having difficulty,' Robison says. 'This is a franchise that has within five or six years had a steady decline, and we have to find a way to turn it around.'

Principal owner Jim Goldsmith acknowledges the audit and says, 'We welcome it,' because he believes the Hawks' financial troubles, particularly, stem from their lease with the Trail Blazers.

'They're my partners,' Goldsmith says, of the WHL and other teams. 'It's no secret, as we've told everybody, the economic model here does not work. This franchise has not turned a profit in 10 years since we won the Memorial Cup in 1998, averaging 8,000 fans and going four rounds in the playoffs.

'You can't have a successful economic model based on winning the Memorial Cup every year.'

Robison reiterated that getting Portland back on track after two disastrous years, on and off the ice, remains the WHL's top priority.

Rumors of potential buyers

The review involves WHL personnel visiting the Portland team's offices to look at hockey operations, the lease and overall condition of the franchise, Robison says.

'For the most part, we have no other franchises in financial difficulty,' he says. 'So we can spend considerable time on it.

'We are confident the franchise can be successful; not long ago, it was one of the WHL's premier franchises.'

He says a few years back the WHL examined Tri-City in the same way after an ownership change and market viability concerns. The Americans have rebounded to become one of the WHL's best teams.

Meanwhile, rumors continue to swirl about whether Goldsmith and partners Jack Donovan and John Bryant will continue to own the team.

A lot of the buzz has some former Hawks, such as Steve Konowalchuk, Brenden Morrow, Andrew Ference, Marian Hossa and Adam Deadmarsh, being part of a group or groups interested in buying the club.

Robison says none of them have contacted the WHL office about making a formal offer, but some former Hawks, whom he would not name, have talked with WHL executives about the ownership situation.

'There's a higher frequency of inquiries around franchises when they're not doing well,' Robison says. 'It's good to see the Winter Hawks' former players are concerned, as we are.'

For now, Hodge is GM

Goldsmith says he would welcome discussions with any former players about 'strategic partnerships,' but 'I have not heard from any of those guys; that doesn't mean they're not talking to somebody. I've heard from other people that they're out there.'

Contacted by the Portland Tribune, Konowalchuk would not comment.

Robison says he has not asked Goldsmith to sell the team, and he says the WHL does not plan to facilitate a sale at this time.

Goldsmith says: 'I'm absolutely committed to owning the team. Like anything else in the world, you certainly have to listen and entertain (a sale).'

All funds have not switched hands from GM Ken Hodge and previous owners to Goldsmith and his partners. It's one reason that Hodge retains the title of general manager.

Goldsmith has said he plans to hire a new GM and reassign Hodge to scouting and recruiting when potential candidates become free from contracts and can be interviewed after the WHL season. Hodge's role is part of the WHL review, Robison says.

Goldsmith says, 'He's absolutely going to stay with the organization.'