When the current Portland Winter Hawks season picked up where the last one left off—namely, in the gutter of the Western Hockey League—players and fans knew something had to change.
But the Hawks, losers of 15 of their first 18 games this season after a league-worst record of 17 wins and 55 losses last year, surprised everyone by trading away seven of their 25 players in less than a week—most of them in a six-player swap Nov. 8.
"Guys knew something was coming, but not something that big," says forward Matt Betker. "We needed to shake things up."
Team president Jack Donovan confesses the same is true of the franchise, which employs 14 people full-time and has been in Portland since 1976. Attendance is down 29 percent from last season (see "Empty Net," WW , Nov. 8, 2006) to 3,706 through 11 home games. The average was even lower before a local union bought 3,000 tickets for Friday's game.
Asked how many seasons of bad win-loss records and swooning attendance the franchise can handle, Donovan said, "Not many."
"My [ownership] partners are good guys, and they understand it's a growing process," adds Donovan, whose group took over the team in 2006. "But you can't go on like this forever."
Donovan isn't saying if there's any danger of the team moving, though he does note he's had two "very preliminary" conversations with nearby cities. Not that he isn't working to improve the Memorial Coliseum; among other projects, Donovan has convinced the city (he uses the phrase "gnashing of teeth" when referring to what it's like dealing with City Hall) to make improvements to the creaky 47-year-old sports arena.
One help: the Davis Cup Tournament being played there Nov. 30 through Dec. 2. That tennis event has spurred the city to speed up some repairs and maintenance.
David Logsdon, the city's spectator facilities manager, says the international men's tennis final accelerated some new lighting and work on dressing rooms as part of the half-million dollars spent each year by the city on the Coliseum.
With better concourse lights and banners, improved food selections, and long-awaited video-replay screens finally in place, Donovan is ready for a second-half push in promotions and advertising that will bring fans back. "I'd like to see attendance between 6,500 and 7,000," he says.
The team just started advertising last week on cable TV, Donovan adds. Between now and the March 16 home finale, a dozen game-night promotions, plus a renewed focus on luring big groups, give him some hope for better turnstile numbers. Of course, a better team would help.
"We knew we were going to struggle a little bit, because [our players are] young," he says. "We aren't gonna be barn burning, but we're gonna get some wins.… Apathy can set in, and that was something we felt was starting to happen."
Speaking of apathy, the fan base appears to have been whittled down to the most hardcore, thick-or-thin devotees. Speaking during intermission in a recent game, a half-dozen season ticket holders seemed resigned to another rebuilding year.
"Losing doesn't change my attitude about coming," says Bill Camp, who's been a regular since 1996. "Besides, it can't get any worse than it is. The trade was the equivalent of poker, where you trade in four cards and keep one, just to reshuffle the deck. I'm sure if we have another season like last year, people will start dropping off, but most of the people here now have been around a while."
Back on the ice after the wave of trades, the Hawks lost four more games, their record dropping to 3-19 after Saturday's 4-1 loss to Kelowna. Going into Tuesday night's game after press time against Regina, they'd lost six in a row.
But players, coaches and fans all agree there was a little extra pep in the team last weekend, and that it will take time for the new players to get in sync. One way to measure renewed effort is in shots on goal: Last weekend, in two home losses, the Hawks were outshot 70-61; the weekend before, in two road blowouts, they were outshot an absurd 107-37.
Asked what the team has improved at, Betker responded, "Not giving up."
The WHL has 22 teams whose rosters consist of players aged 16 to 20.
Last year's average Winter Hawks attendance was 5,189, ranking it seventh in the WHL.