Physical play earns Portland reputation for roughing it up

Cody McLeod recently had his right front tooth knocked out, and he bashfully tells how. No, it wasn't a punch. It was a puck shot by teammate Braydon Coburn.

Getting a 'Chiclet' knocked out by a punch serves as a badge of honor in hockey, although McLeod has plenty of badges to wear in his third season with the Portland Winter Hawks. With physical play by McLeod and others, the Winter Hawks have earned the reputation as one of the Western Hockey League's toughest teams.

Portland (28-22-4-1), which has won nine of the past 11 games to tie for first in the WHL U.S. Division, ranks fourth in the league in penalty minutes at 26 per game and number of power plays against at nearly six per game.

'We're a team that has to play on the edge and be physical,' coach Mike Williamson says, 'but be smart after the whistle' and not get retaliation penalties.

The coach sees a trend he likes: 'A lot of body checks have been called on us this year, as roughing penalties.' That means the Winter Hawks are issuing some licks on opposing players. 'We'll kill off penalties all night that come from tough, physical play and banging and crashing on the boards,' he says.

General Manager Ken Hodge says good Portland teams in the past have been near the top of the WHL in penalty minutes. Many times there's a correlation between physical play and winning, he says.

'Willy's trying to cut back on some of them, but he's still trying to play with a gritty attitude,' Hodge says.

Last year, the Winter Hawks had the reputation as being soft; Seattle manhandled Portland all year, and Hodge and Williamson knew they needed to change the makeup of the team. They brought in enforcer Robin Big Snake, who ranks second in the WHL with 202 penalty minutes.

McLeod, who has 172 'PIMs,' has evolved into the team's most improved player, changing his game to be more physical and to be a leader. 'I try to bring lots of energy and get the boys going,' he says.

Even rookies Shane Halifax (115 PIMs), Kyle Bailey and Garrett Festerling bring a chip on their shoulder to the rink every day.

'Sometimes (receiving penalties) doesn't help our penalty kill, but it sends a message that we won't be pushed around,' the bruising Halifax says.

With more tenacious players, Williamson employs an aggressive 1-2 forecheck, where one player initially battles in the corner with opposing defensemen, followed by another. 'We couldn't ask our team last year to play that way,' he says. Didn't have the players, and 'we couldn't ask McLeod to do it every night.'

The Winter Hawks play Brandon in the Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday.

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