Despite worst record in league, team still sees glimmer of hope
It's been a major rebuilding job. It's also been a tryout.
The Portland Winter Hawks' brass wants to find out who among the young players has the character to be part of the team's future. And character has been put to the test - the Hawks have the Western Hockey League's worst record by far (15-43-1-1), and they've lost 17 of their last 18 games.
Hope still exists in the locker room. General Manager Ken Hodge believes the team can be 'a quality contender' by the middle of next season and vie for championships in 2008-09 and 2009-10. 'And then you'd like to keep it rolling,' he says.
If everything goes as planned, the current players will improve and the club will add talent through savvy draft picks and signings.
But will Portland's young players pan out? Hodge says he and coach Mike Williamson have been 'a little disappointed' in them since the Hawks sent veterans packing to give youngsters ownership in the team.
Nobody has really stepped up to the challenge, save for goalie Kurtis Mucha and defenseman Bo Montgomery. Maybe the most touted prospect, Thomas Frazee, was sent home this week for various off-ice problems.
'They have not made a statement of commitment,' Hodge says of the youngsters.
'You don't want to hear, 'You're young,' ' center Colton Sceviour says. 'You want to hear, 'You outworked the other team, but they had more skill.' That hasn't happened enough this year.'
The Winter Hawks have scored the fewest goals and given up the most in the league. Williamson sees inconsistencies in work ethic, teamwork, sound and positional hockey, and grit, much of which cannot be chalked up to simple inexperience.
'We've talked so much about the simple things: creating a foundation of hard work and team unity,' Williamson says. 'It's a good time to test and see what guys are made of. We want to see who's going to buckle down.'
Few players are of voting age
Still, the Winter Hawks have the youngest team in the league and their history. And in the WHL, older teams win, period.
The Hawks have nine players who are ages 18, 19 or 20; Tri-City has 17, and Prince George 15.
Portland's 1998 Memorial Cup title team had 14 in the three upper ages, and the 2001 WHL Western Conference title team had 18. Each of those teams had one 16-year-old player; the current Hawks have seven 16-year-olds, including Frazee, and seven 17-year-olds.
Good teams use the same formula: Obtain depth and the ability to play four lines; combine top-end skill players with two-way, energetic role players; have at least one offensive defensemen and some stout D-men who don't turn over the puck; and get a good goalie.
The Winter Hawks have the goalie in Mucha, who has been the rock and the difference in many of their 15 wins.
The defense has started to take shape, buoyed by the acquisition of Montgomery, commitments from Lee Morrow and Brent Ponich, and the prospect of landing offensive D-man Patrick Wiercoich. The young forwards have received ample ice time, and Sceviour, Tristan King, Chris Francis and Frazee have showed top-end offensive potential.
Hodge says he hopes Frazee will get his head on straight.
'I don't think Thomas has figured out the road to success,' Hodge says. 'It's been easy for him, without a lot of accountability. We want him to commit to himself, and a commitment to the hockey club would fall into place.'
Before his dismissal, Frazee admitted he had to work on 'my attitude away from the ice, and being a better person.' That included more dedication to academics and making hockey the priority.
Much needs to fall into place
Williamson will be very aware of who shows up to training camp this summer in good shape. That's dedication, he says. Players also must determine where they fit in, and accept it - Tayler Jordan and Matt Betker, for example, have showed leadership that way this season.
'You have to be well-rounded and work on all parts of your game,' Williamson says.
It's a pivotal time for the Winter Hawks. The best-case scenario has them:
• Getting a commitment from Wiercoich (it's a better than 50-50 chance)
• Selecting an NHL-quality forward with the No. 3 Canadian Hockey League import draft selection and hopefully getting him for two or three years (although it's supposedly a weak pool of Euros)
• Picking three quality 15-year-olds high in this year's WHL bantam draft (their first pick will be no lower than fifth overall)
• Making headway with and signing two coveted players on their protected list, forwards Dion Knelson and Colin Reddin
And, 'we have to keep our eyes on players within the league who we might need to add for maturity in our hockey club,' Hodge says.
IN THE FOLD
The Winter Hawks' 24 returning players and committed recruits, listed according to their ages next season:
Frazer McLaren, left wing
Nicholas Hotson, right wing
Stefan Langwieder, defenseman
Scott Gabriel, defenseman
Cameron Cepek, defenseman
Viktor Sjodin, right wing
Matt Schmermund, left wing
Lucas Alexiuk, defenseman
Colton Sceviour, center
Matt Betker, center
Chris Francis, left wing
Matt Sokol, goalie
Chris Ward, goalie
Kurtis Mucha, goalie
Ty Ariss, defenseman
Bo Montgomery, defenseman
Chip Petrino, left wing
Thomas Frazee, right wing
Tristan King, center
Tayler Jordan, right wing
Devon Marshall, defenseman
Lee Morrow, defenseman
Brett Ponich, defenseman
Riley Boychuk, right wing