On the centenary of the Portland Rosebuds’ only Stanley Cup finals, WW consulted bodybuilding/heavy metal icon Jon Mikl Thor (current owner of the Rosebuds trademark), who responded with help from PCHA historian Craig Bowlsby about the thorny legacy of Portland’s first champions…
After inscribing their name as the first Americans on the Stanley Cup in 1916, albeit under somewhat spurious circumstances, the Portland Rosebuds seemed on the brink of starting an American hockey dynasty in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.
Alas, it was never to be.
Portland wouldn’t be returning quite the same squad to their hometown Hippodrome, located at the edge of Slabtown. Two weeks after the championship, during a barnstorming tour of exhibition games, Rosebud defenseman Del Irvine died from pneumonia allegedly caused by inhaling the ammonium chloride vapors generated by early artificial ice rinks.
Related: How 100 Years Ago the Portland Rosebuds Became the First American Team Engraved on the Stanley Cup
They also lost their leader. “The original President of the Hippodrome, E. H. Savage—a dedicated hockey man and coach and manager of the Portland team—suffered a head injury,” according to Thor and Bowlsby’s account. “The man who replaced him was Bill Scott, who was much disliked by everyone, and was fired the next season.”
And then there was the war.
The Dominion of Canada had entered WWI alongside the United Kingdom two years earlier, and the steady escalation led their government to attempt ever more fanciful means of boosting enlistment.
Portland captain Eddie Oatman—a Canadian national, like almost every other Rosebud—was one of a group of all-stars privately approached to join a specialized sort of military service.
In exchange for joining up, they’d be placed in the 228th Battalion (a.k.a. the Northern Fusiliers), a squad of hockey warriors whose fighting would be strictly confined to the rinks of PCHA rival National Hockey Association, which would eventually become the NHL.
Skating in khaki uniforms, the 228th Battalion was promptly installed as a fully-fledged franchise for the 1915-1916 season, laying waste to teams like the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. Through their first five games, the 228th doubled their opponents’ scoring. But by the end of February, worsening carnage overseas necessitated all units report for active duty.
Oatman managed to force a discharge as unfit for efficient soldiering—arguably a court-martial offense—even as he complained about receiving less than half of the lucrative signing bonus promised by the army.
Meanwhile, even with the emergence of Rosebud rookie star Dick Irvin and his 35 goals, the Portland team couldn’t overcome the loss of their beloved coach and best player, and the Rosebuds finished third in the PCHA. (Seattle, taking advantage of their home ice, swept the Canadiens for the 1917 Cup.)
Though Oatman returned to form the following year, Portland lost new star Irvin to the draft. While the young phenom served as motorcycle rider for a French signals unit, the Rosebuds fell to another third place finish.
And the year after that, the Rosebuds disappeared entirely.
The Spanish Influenza outbreak not only forced cancellation of the 1919 Stanley Cup, it crippled revenue at arenas throughout North America.
After the Rosebuds’ home venue was purchased by a man named George Bryan, a November 1918 Oregonian article appeared with headline “Ice Palace Manager Shows Little Hockey Interest,” highlighting the new owner’s “sphynx-like indifference” to the Rosebuds, reporting that many players remained in Portland working in shipyards, anxiously awaiting the start of the season.
Unlike the future NHL, which came together more or less organically as a consortium of business interests from different cities, the PCHA had been effectively created from scratch by a pair of hockey-mad lumber heirs determined to bring the game west. Not only did Frank and Lester Patrick serve their own squads as coach and captain, they built the arenas and organized competing squads around Northwest hubs.
The only hockey arena the PCHA owners did not control was Portland’s Hippodrome.
“They couldn’t force Portland to put a team on the ice”, write Thor and Bowlsby. “By the fall of 1918, Bryan forced the Hippodrome to close because the day-to-day operations were losing money—not hockey. Bryan himself was more interested in baseball.”
After Bryan shut down all communication with the league, the Patricks shut own the Portland NCHA franchise in 1918. The Rosebuds wouldn’t return until 1925, by which time the hockey association had been forced to merge into the new Western Hockey League.
In the meantime, the Patrick brothers had enacted a series of innovations to the game – numbered jerseys, the forward pass, the diving goalie—that highlighted the game’s most salable aspects and forged a modern spectator sport from brutalist curling.
The Rosebuds’ return brought back a few familiar faces including Pete Muldoon, Portland’s original coach, and its former star rookie Dick Irvin (alongside his boyhood chum George Hay).
But while Hay and Irvin were among the league’s scoring leaders, atrocious goaltending kept the Rosebuds out of the playoffs once more, and, in April 1926, the defending-champion Victoria Cougars became the last team to battle for the Stanley Cup from outside the National Hockey League.
Two months later, unable to counter the deep pockets of their rivals, the WHL folded, and the NHL would be anointed sole owner of the Stanley Cup.
Top athletes from the WHL were parceled out piecemeal to the highest bidder, with two notable exceptions. Victoria was purchased outright by a Detroit syndicate to form the core of the eventual Red Wings, while Chicago coffee baron Frederic McLaughlin paid a reported $15,000 (about $200,000 in today’s money) for the rights to the Portland team. He also renamed the Rosebuds after his WWI army unit – the 86th Infantry “Black Hawk” Division.
“Like a character in a Tom Clancy thriller,” Thor and Bowlsby wrote, “[NCHA co-owner] Frank offered them in secret meetings to the new competing forces, and some teams were offered packages while other deals were for single players. The whole enterprise was possibly the biggest secret mission in hockey, with no one knowing the outcome over a period of seven or eight months. In the end, it was surprising that any of these teams were sold intact, especially because Frank had no real right to sell any of them.”
And so the Portland Rosebuds remained intact, except that they were now the Chicago Blackhawks.
George Hay would score the first goal in Black Hawks history. Irvin led Chicago in points that initial season and, after a gruesome on-ice skull fracture cut short his playing career, he ended up behind the bench—sending the Black Hawks to the Stanley Cup finals during his debut as skipper, winning four Cups with Toronto and Montreal and finishing with 692 regular season coaching wins, the third most ever. (Muldoon, abruptly fired for a substandard record after one year, would gain a certain Midwestern infamy for his alleged curse against Chicago, who failed to top their division for the next four decades.)
Charles Tobin, the Rosebuds’ all-time leader in points, goals, and games played, passed away from complications due to stomach ulcers at Portland’s St. Vincent’s hospital, aged 38. Eddie Oatman, the Rosebuds leader in assists, continued as player and coach for various minor league squads (Buffalo Majors, St. Paul Saints, Duluth Zephyrs) until he was 50. Moose Johnson retired from hockey’s first division after hearing jeers from his Victoria Aristocrats’ crowd—he reportedly quipped that they buried his stick in honor—but returned to barnstorm through the minor leagues (reuniting with Oatman for a stint with the Minneapolis Millers) before finally returning to Portland to spend his last decades as a brakeman for the Union Pacific railroad.
Portland’s Ice Hippodrome was purchased by the Ice Follies in 1944, closed in ’53, and razed in ’63. A retirement center was built on the Northwest 20th and Marshall site.
Hockey returned to Portland almost immediately in a new Pacific Coast Hockey League, though it would be without the game’s top starsand without the moniker engraved on the Stanley Cup.
According to Hockey In Portland, by Jim Mancuso and Scott Peterson, the new owner “chose not to use the traditional Rosebuds name because he believed that label was somewhat effeminate.”)
“It was a new era,” reported Thor and Bowlsby. “He wanted something fresh and new. Something that had a feel of the West—The [Portland] Buckaroos.”
In Chicago, meanwhile, the man who’d purchased Portland’s former players was newly cultivating his new Blackhawks franchise. Now that the Rosebuds players had been transplanted to a franchise obliquely honoring an Illinois-area tribal chief, the floral insignia required a complete overhaul.
As the legend goes, visual branding fell to Major McLaughlin’s formidable wife. Irene Castle had been considered the most fashionable woman in America a decade previous, and perhaps the first truly modern American celebrity. She introduced the bob hairstyle, popularized jazz music among polite society, and taught the country to ‘dance below the waist’.
And, sewing the very first jersey of her husband’s new team, she would design one of pro sports’ most beloved and enduring emblems. Somehow evading the usual ethnographic concerns, the silhouette of an approachably-stoic Native American entered our collective visual lexicon as an instantly recognizable symbol of the Chicago Black Hawks.
Or, to a relative handful of fans for reasons that make less sense with each passing year, the Portland Winterhawks.
If the fall of the Patrick Brothers and the PCHA carries a whiff of tragedy, the next few decades of organizational mismanagement of Northwest hockey survive as slapstick. Though firmly consigned to hockey’s back benches, Portland assembled winning teams, drew packed crowds, and remained the jewel in the crown for each threadbare entrepreneur eager to forge a lasting regional league.
Even ignoring doomed stints from such WWII-era clubs as the Penguins and Eagles, three discrete version of the Buckaroos suffered through the implosion of six different leagues, and, when the last iteration headed to the final round-up in 1976, a new suitor desperately seized the opportunity.
One year earlier, newly-fired Edmonton Oilers coach Brian Shaw had used his severance package to purchase the rival Edmonton Oil Kings, only to be immediately forced out of the market by the Oilers’ move up to the NHL. When he discovered Portland was available, Shaw began an immediate relocation to the Rose City that would use up the remainder of his money, and also force the Western Canadian Hockey League to drop the nationalism and change its name to the WHL.
Given ownership’s lack of resources, lord only knows what Portland players would have worn if Shaw’s contacts in the league office didn’t announce that the Chicago Black Hawks were preparing to throw away their used uniforms.
After enlisting his aunt to mend the Chicago team’s jerseys, Shaw named the team after a 1975 Indian epic recently in theaters. The new Winter Hawks would take the ice wearing discarded laundry.
So far, so Portland. The club began winning almost immediately, while its ownership would be best remembered for devising promotions like “Dash For The Cash”. They won their division in just their second season, but another year would pass before a “P” replaced the “C” on their uniforms’ shoulder crests.
Enshrined as one third of Canada’s junior hockey circuit alongside Ontario and Quebec, the WHL’s power grew alongside the media-fueled expansion of all four major sports, and, somewhere along the way, the Winter Hawks inherited an unquestioned legitimacy.
To the likely surprise of many fairweather fans, no formal connection has ever existed between the Blackhawks and Winterhawks. (Chicago’s team streamlined their name in 1986; Portland would follow in 2009.)
Unlike, say, the Buckaroos, which once served as farm club for the Los Angeles Kings, the WHL disallows linkage between junior hockey organizations and the NHL. While the team’s current coach did move directly from an assistant’s post with the Blackhawks to accept stewardship of Portland’s team, Jamie Kompon may just have followed the uniforms.
If it seems odd that Chicago’s ownership never protested the extended use of their trademark, keep in mind that the 1970 pro draft was conducted by misreading a roulette wheel.
More to the point, the Winterhawks ended up among the sport’s most successful franchises on any level. Buoyed by early stints from such proto-legends like Mark Messier, Cam Neely, and 2013 WHL rookie of the year Seth Jones. The squad has won the WHL President’s Cup three times, the CHL Memorial Cup twice, and, despite a rocky start to the season, they were one game away from five straight trips to the WHL finals last May.
Blackhawks fandom, meanwhile, has historically been considered more a burden than keepsake. The logo’s ubiquity arose at least in part from a cinematic legacy of Chicago jerseys costuming hard-luck goofballs from Clark Griswold to Wayne and Garth.
In, 2007, though, the club chanced upon that rarest thing: an American kid with the wit to rock an ironic ‘playoff mullet’ and the talent to lead his team to three Cups in six years (a sorta-dynasty presumed impossible midst modern salary cap strictures.)
The Blackhawks have become very much their own franchise, its faithful boosters stricken by the insufferable swagger that only long stretches of Midwestern failure can engender. But all the same, something tells us Patrick Kane would’ve made one hell of a Rosebud.
But though attendance at Portland’s final incarnation of the Buckaroos reportedly topped every pro club save the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, the possibility of an NHL franchise in Portland has only ever been used as negotiating leverage against cities like Pittsburgh.
Not to diminish the suffering of fanbases who’ve lost franchises their community could no longer support, but a strange morbidity clings to the story of the Rosebuds—their championship forever questioned, their league overrun by corporate predators from the east, their team auctioned away without chance of local intervention, their coast closed to expansion by the new ruling hockey authority, and, in a cosmic irony that would take decades to blossom, their fans led to cheer on the emblem of the usurpers.
This is, of course, the nature of professional sports franchises. Sometimes you get the Bears, sometimes the Bears get you. Still, at the end of the day, market size and fanbase devotion matter far less to the fortunes of a club than residents of big league cities might like to believe.
Portland only won their original rights to the Rosebud team because, once upon a time, British Columbia’s New Westminister failed to develop a proper arena. And the NHL’s seizure of control that pushed the Portland Rosebuds to Chicago was also far from inevitable. According to Thor and Bowlsby, the regional power balance may have evened itself out had the Patricks held on for a cash infusion from Canadian rail money.
In the century since America’s first hockey team carved out their annus mirabilis, our city’s hosted literally hundreds of ill-starred franchises. We’ve seen the Portland Fire, we’ve seen the Portland Rain. The Rosebuds even reappeared as a baseball team briefly run by Jesse Owens. But we’ve paraded few champions, notwithstanding last year’s iron-man jaunt through soccer’s second division and a blip of basketball greatness almost immediately tainted through bitter recrimination.
The larger footie world thinks the Timbers a peculiarly-Portland tale of a franchise kept alive through songs, knitted accessories, and reclaimed lumber. And as far as the NBA’s concerned, we chanced upon a pot-smoking, bike-riding, red-headed generational talent and destroyed him.
Related: Feb 28, 1978: Bill Walton Asks for a Seat on the Bench.
At some point, even residents began to agree we didn’t deserve nice things, and the state became a haven for those actively escaping spectator sports. The signature moments of our most iconic homegrown athletes—Prefontaine losing, Tonya testifying, Fosbury flopping—aren’t exactly the stuff of Wheaties boxes.
But the 21st Century game of urban legitimacy isn’t always about whether you win or lose. For better or worse, this sporting life is scored differently.