Portland is home to numerous teams with stellar reputations such as the Blazers, Thorns, Timbers, and Pickles, but a team that seems to fly under the radar in the Rose City is the Portland Winterhawks. The Winterhawks are an ice hockey team that is a part of the Western Hockey League (WHL), which is one of the three branches of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
For those who are not familiar with ice hockey, it is a fast paced, high contact sport that originated in Canada. The rink usually holds six players from each team at once: one center, and two wingers which are also known as forwards, two defenseman, and one goal-tender or goalie. Every player is equipped with protective gear under their jersey, skates, a helmet, gloves, and a stick and on the ice they are fighting to score goals with the puck.
The team plays in the Veteran Memorial Coliseum which is right next to Moda Center in the Rose Quarter. The coliseum is frequently full of hockey fans, volunteers, staff members, and a dance team known as the Rosebuds. The games are full of atmosphere regardless of how large the crowd is, from competitions between fans during breaks, parades or dances on the ice, the 50/50 raffle and various games like the Chuck a Puck.
The Winterhawks Associate Coach Kyle Gustafson shared his thoughts about the WHL: “You know, junior hockey is a little bit different than maybe the pro game. We get these kids for [a few] years, we [help] foster [and] develop them, and by the time they’re 19 or 20 we hope that they take the next step.” That next step for many is the NHL, but the Hawks are not the only ones striving to be draft picks this season. Gustafson explained, “[The] NHL Draft happens in June, and teams have to decide if they want to draft your player or not.” All players under the CHL are eligible to become draft picks which means U.S., Canadian, and European players are all looking to get drafted each season.
In talking with Winterhawks Captain Gabe Klassen, you can see just how tight knit the Hawks’ players are on and off the ice. Klassen stated that,“my favorite part is just being able to spend all my time with my teammates.” He continued, “[getting] to play the last four seasons here has been unbelievable.” He also mentioned that he and his teammates love to get together and play pre-game games and other sports outside of “Hawkey.”
Klassen believes the most important part of being a teammate and captain is “having a passion for the game [which] is huge and just always making sure you’re the hardest worker wherever you are,” which is a recipe for success. Klassen’s roommates and favorite guys on the team are fellow center Kyle Chyzowski and right winger Marcus Nguyen, and Klassen’s favorite player is #12 Patrick Marleau, who is also known as “Mr. San Jose Sharks.”
Luca Cagnoni, a defenseman, shared that “coming to the rink every day and seeing your friends,” is one of his favorite things about being a Hawk. Cagnoni went on to share that his favorite people or “core guys” on the team are fellow defenseman Josh Mori , Marek Alscher , Ryder Thompson, and goalie Dante Guannuzi. Cagnoni’s favorite NHL team is the Boston Bruins or his home team the Vancouver Canucks. Cagnoni is ranked 32nd in the NHL prospects list currently and recently attended the NHL/CHL Top Prospects game, which is an annual contest of the top 40 prospects to give NHL scouts a first hand look at players before the draft in June. Being only one of two draft prospects on the Winterhawks, one would think this puts extra pressure on Cagnoni to perform, but he explained that “it doesn’t at all.” He went on to say “I can’t think of that stuff. It’s just everyday you come to the rink with a good mindset and you get [to] work.”
2023 NHL draft pick Carter Sotheran is also attending high school, as well as being a defenseman. “He’s asked to practice with our team at the elite level, [along with] the pressure of trying to be drafted, so it’s a large demand [for players],” Gustafson explained.
Sue Johnson has worked for the Winterhawks for over 30 years, and helped hundreds of players go through education during that time. Johnson helps coordinate schedules for high school and college players as well as helping students organize their work and providing study times, which is crucial when game schedules take them on the road for extended periods.
“It is imperative that these players graduate from high school AND that they are college ready,” Johnson explained.“Not all [players] will be drafted into the NHL, so we want to make sure their future is enhanced with a good academic background.” Johnson knows that it is also important to have a career plan or plan B for when playing is out of the question, or if injury or unintended circumstances arise.
Johnson shared that she is “amazed by their hard work, drive and perseverance as well as the kindness and respect they show others,” and that she, along with parents of players, is very proud of the program and boys.
The Hawks have been consistently seated at the second spot in the U.S. division since the middle of the season, and in the early season were frequently in the first spot over Seattle. The team has maintained their ranking in their division and the WHL throughout the season and managed to be the second team in the WHL to clinch a playoff spot. The Winterhawks couldn’t have done this without the dedication and consistency of their top players.
Klassen is currently the top scorer on the team with 34 goals and 30 assists so far this season, and right winger James Stefan is ranked second with 21 goals and 39 assists. Robbie Fromm-Delorme is a right winger and third overall on the Hawks with 28 goals and 31 assists. Cagnoni holds the most assists on the team with 43, and center Jack O’Brien is not far behind with 40 assists. Goalie Dante Giannuzzi has 23 wins in 38 games, and secondary goalie Jan Spunar has 14 wins in 25 games.
From the middle of December to the beginning of February, the Winterhawks won every game played at home, which awarded them the #1 longest streak at home and #2 overall in the WHL standings. Additionally the Hawks were on a losing streak starting on February 11 and spanning 10 games until finally breaking it on March 5 against the Everett Silvertips in a 1-3 game. So far this season the Winterhawks have played 60 games, 37 of which they won and the remaining 17 lost; they have 80 points total and are ranked 6 out of 22 in the WHL.
The Winterhawks are a resourceful and proud organization with a group of smart and strong players. Throughout the hockey season the Winterhawks host many special events like a Black Hockey History Night, Pride Night, Teddy Bear Toss, Mascot Night and many more. Every game is usually an hour long which allows it to be a quick and fun event that is easily accessed due to affordability of tickets and Trimet Max and bus lines nearby.
Winterhawks games are an experience that every Portlander should have at least once; the regular season ends March 25 and you can see the Hawks play at home on March 14, 18, 21, and 24. On March 31 2023, the team will head into their 12th year in a row playing in the WHL playoffs, with their last win being in 2013, so every Hawks player and fan is hoping this is the year they can win it all again.