Thursday, February 10, 2011

10-5. A 2011 Blowout: A 1980 Typical Wednesday

The Portland Winterhawks rolled through the Spokane Chiefs, exploding for 5 goals in 1:59 in the first period and skating to a 10-5 victory Wednesday. The Hawks got a 5 point night from Ryan Johansen, and a hat-trick from Brad Ross to lead the way offensively. The victory extends the Hawks' lead over Spokane to 7 points in the standings, and are now 8 points ahead of the Tri-City Americans leading up to their showdown Friday night in the Memorial Coliseum.

The Hawks victory last night, however, is nowhere near the most lopsided in the history of the two cities. Let's look back now to another time and era in the Western Hockey League: The 1980-81 season. That season, the Western Hockey League had 13 teams, 8 in the Eastern Conference and 5 in the Western. And whereas the league currently has parity, with teams rotating in and out from the top of the standings year by year, and the U.S. division arguably the strongest top-to-bottom in the league, the early 1980's were a very different story. In the early going of the WHL, teams didn't select players in a drafting system. In fact, the bantam draft wasn't initiated until 1990, and even then was only 2 rounds. The disparity between teams in the early seasons of the league was shocking. In particular, teams that attempted to make it in the United States had a very difficult time finding and recruiting western Canadian talent to come to America to pursue hockey. The Great Falls Americans only lasted 28 games before folding as a franchise. The Spokane Flyers lasted a bit longer, surviving a season and a half from the start of the 1980 season until December 2, 1981. It was in this time of turmoil that the most lopsided game in Winter Hawk history occurred.

The lone full season of the Spokane Flyers saw their franchise achieve 35 points in the 72 game 1980-81 season. That season, the Winter Hawks, already established in the WHL thanks to Brian Shaw's clever ownership decisions, finished second in that regular season with 113 points. Shaw, unlike the rest of the teams who came into the U.S. in those times, negotiated a key advantage in acquiring players. Shaw had relocated the team from Edmonton to Portland, taking a big risk in coming into the U.S. Having not moved into a market rich in young players of a high calibre, Shaw wanted to keep the advantages they had built in recruiting in Edmonton after the relocation of the franchise. What resulted was a "protected area" that the Winter Hawks had within a 90-mile radius of the city of Edmonton. Within the first few years the Hawks were in Portland, in order to establish the franchise, the Hawks had first crack at any players coming out of that area. What resulted was an influx of talent to the Hawks in their early going, culminating in the franchise's first Memorial Cup in 1983.

With these two vastly different groundbreaking U.S. teams squaring off, it was a definite case of David vs. Goliath. The Hawks, with their protected area and the hockey knowledge of fans in Portland thanks to the Portland Buckaroos playing in the city previously, were considered one of the league's powerhouses. The Flyers, in their brief history, never defeated the Hawks in 12 tries, being outscored 92-32. Never was this more evident than on December 10th, 1980. That night, Ken Hodge, who was upset previously at the Spokane franchise (in particular having 8 players on a last place team who would finish the season with over 175 PIMs), said before the game he would score 20 goals that night. The Hawks came out firing, and by late in the third period held an 18-2 lead. That's when Hodge decided that he would do anything in his power to come true on his word and score that 20th goal. So, he pulled his goaltender in order to do so. Not exactly sending your fourth line out in a powerplay late in a blowout like we see often today. Hodge made it very clear that he didn't hold the Spokane organization in the highest regard, and wanted to make a statement. However, one may argue, poetic justice was served, as the Flyers scored twice into the gaping net to cut the deficit to 14. In a bit of a twist, the two teams played in Portland just 3 nights later. That game saw the Hawks narrowly defeat Spokane by a count of 4-2, and in fact took the Hawks to overtime in Spokane less than a month later. Perhaps Hodge's pulling of the netminder motivated the opposition in the next few contests between the sides. Or perhaps not, as the night before the overtime game in Spokane, the Hawks defeated the Flyers 11-2.

Clearly the early seasons of the WHL were full of turmoil, with teams often having to cease operations in the middle of campaigns. The teams that attempted to become expansion franchises occasionally had owners with a false belief of knowledge about running a junior hockey franchise. What resulted was a climate where the established franchises, such as the Winter Hawks who scored 18 goals on the Flyers, or the Saskatoon Blades who scored 5 goals in 1:16 against the expansion Prince Albert Raiders, dominated the weak.

Perhaps we would see franchises in Billings or Grand Rapids currently if the league had provided expansion drafts, competitive leveling of the playing field, and bantam drafts for incoming players. Or perhaps the owners who had the foresight and knowledge about hockey survived. Those who hired the intelligent hockey people, smart marketers to sell tickets, and were clever businessmen. Perhaps teams like the Spokane Flyers had to fold, so that teams like the Spokane Chiefs could thrive and create something special, in the same market, only 5 years later. Saskatoon dominated Prince Albert in 1982, but the Raiders are still alive today. Perhaps it was the job of teams like Saskatoon and Portland to show no mercy to the weak. Like pulling the goaltender in an 18-2 hockey game.