The Portland Winterhawks are gearing up for a modified season that will see them play 24 games within the US Division. All the players finished their quarantine March 5th and head coach Mike Johnston said they’re thrilled to get back at it. The Winterhawks have 14 players returning with eight rookies. However, Portland is without four players from last season’s team in Jack O’Brien, James Stefan, Clay Hanus and Cross Hanas.
In January the players were released to the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League (USHL) so they could get playing time. If Portland is still playing when Lincoln’s season ends, those players could then return to Portland. Despite being without those four, Johnston explained how this allows the rookies and younger players more time to gain experience at the WHL level.
Practices and schooling
Due to the shortened season and no training camp this year, Johnston said there would be more scrimmages in practice. This could include five on five, four on four or power play situations. But make no mistake, Johnston is glad to be back on the ice with the team. He touched on how there’s a lot of thrill, excitement and energy among the players right now and that they love competition.
“I’ll take two months of practicing, I’ll take anything,” Johnston said.
Players will be tested for COVID-19 three to four times a week starting at 8:30am. When it comes to classes, players are online and in small groups in rooms at the rink. Players take part in their classes and training in the morning with hockey in the afternoon. Before the pandemic, the team met in large groups but unfortunately they’ve had to adapt now to smaller groups. This includes meetings by on ice units such as the power play unit. They also meet via zoom at times and stay in touch by texting.
Notes on the season
During the upcoming modified season, very few people will come into contact with players. Only coaches, the training staff and broadcaster will have interaction with players. During games players won’t have to wear masks, but when on the bench they’ll have to wear gaiters.
Knowing there won’t be any fans in the building for games, Johnston explained that they’d have to create their own energy. He likened it to pre-season games in the past where there was maybe 500 fans and they had to create their own energy. However, Johnston watched the Central Division games last weekend and thought there was good speed and skill execution. Portland will drop the puck on the season March 18th in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans at 7:05pm.
Post-season and other notes
One team in the US Division, the Tri-City Americans are working to have 100 season ticket holders in the building for their home games. Johnston hadn’t heard Tri-City’s plans yet, but said that’d be huge for revenue and more fans the better. Johnston said he hasn’t given up on hope for a US Division playoff yet if fans would be able to be there. He said right now they’re going to be playing for the division and for players to move on.
On the topic of players moving on, Johnston explained that he feels for the 20-year-olds, but is also happy they get to play these games this season.