Friday, April 27, 2012

How the Winterhawks ended up in Portland . . .

This story, written by Dean (Scooter) Vrooman five or six years ago, appeared on this blog on March 30, 2008, and again on Nov. 4, 2008. Originally, it was to have been one chapter in a book about the Portland Winterhawks.
With the Winterhawks having advanced to the WHL final against the Edmonton Oil Kings, it’s worth another look. After all, the Winterhawks, who not that long ago were the Winter Hawks, started life as the Oil Kings.
Here then is Vrooman’s story of the Three Amigos and how the WHL ended up in Portland . . .


Edited by Gregg Drinnan

It was the summer of 1975 and Brian Shaw, Ken Hodge and Innes Mackie were unemployed. With nothing but time on their hands, they decided to go duck hunting in Stettler, Alta.
Shaw and Hodge had been fired by ‘Wild’ Bill Hunter, who owned the World Hockey Association’s Edmonton Oilers and the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings. Mackie had just returned from Kimberley, B.C., where he had turned down a job offer at a mine. The offer Mackie had received included a chance to play a little hockey on the side.
Shaw was in the process of putting together a group of investors to buy the Oil Kings from Hunter. Shaw would run the show. Hodge would coach. Mackie would be the trainer. They didn’t know it at the time but they were embarking on a 20-year relationship — relationships of hockey, business and friendship.
The Three Amigos became inseparable until Shaw passed away in the summer of 1994.
On this day in Stettler, the three men, who would become the three original members of the Winter Hawks’ front office, were solidifying the mutual respect and trust needed. The ducks weren't flying that day, at least not in the Stettler area, so the three erstwhile hunters headed for a local bar to shoot a little pool. Everyone was having fun, too, until a cowboy in a black hat came over and started yipping at Hodge for monopolizing the pool table. After an unflattering comment from Hodge regarding the cowboy’s hat, feathers started to fly — and it had nothing to do with ducks.
"He started to take his jean jacket off and when it got about half way down each arm, I smoked him," Hodge remembers. "It's Saturday night and the place is full. There were five of us — and two of them bailed out. Brian, who was always quick with the wit, was not ready to handle this type of negotiation. So that left Innes and I — and, needless to say, we had our hands full. There were probably eight of them involved by now. The pool cues are getting broken, I'm getting thumped in the back of the head and Innes got jumped. Finally, we hear sirens and red lights. The three of us were never so happy to see the RCMP."
That incident was neither the first nor the last for friendships that would last more than 20 years.
When he was 16 years of age, Hodge earned a job as a defenceman with the Jasper Place Mohawks — a high-profile team in Edmonton. Coincidentally, the general manager and head coach was Shaw, who was working in the first of what would be many dual roles. It didn't take Shaw long to earn his reputation as a slick team manager.
"The team was the talk of the town," Hodge says. "People in Edmonton were very envious. Brian started out with just one bantam team and ended up with the first true feeder system in the Edmonton area when he expanded to midgets and junior. The Jasper Place Mohawks were first class all the way. They paid all their bills, wore flashy uniforms and won lots of hockey games."
Hodge was one of four players from Jasper Place chosen by Shaw to play the next season with the Moose Jaw Canucks of the newly formed Western Canada Hockey League. Shaw was the general manager and head coach and Hodge was a key defenceman.
Other than the Canucks, the WCHL featured the Oil Kings, Estevan Bruins, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades, Weyburn Red Wings and Calgary Buffaloes. Moose Jaw finished fourth in a 56-game regular season, 16 points behind the first-place Oil Kings, but went on to win league’s first championship trophy by beating the Oil Kings — the Canucks won that series 3-2 with four games tied — and then Regina, winning the best-of-seven final, 4-1.
It was the pivotal season of Hodge’s career. In a regular-season game against Regina, Hodge was struck in an eye by a high stick. In the playoffs, he again was hit in the same eye. After a series of operations during the summer, doctors told him that they would know by early 1968 if his eye would ever recover.
On Nov. 15, 1967, Hodge received a call from Gordon Fashaway inviting him to Portland to play for the Buckaroos of the professional Western Hockey League. Hodge was excited about the offer and pushed the doctors for an answer. Unfortunately, the answer he received wasn’t the one he had hoped to hear. Hodge's playing career was over.
The next season, Shaw moved on to the St. Catharines Black Hawks of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. While Hodge was helping with training camp, he accepted an offer to coach the Sorel Eparviers of the Quebec Junior A Hockey League.
Hodge, at 21 likely the youngest head coach in the history of Canadian junior hockey, had quite a debut season. Sorel put up a 33-16-1 regular-season record and went all the way to the Eastern Canadian best-of-five final where it lost 3-1 to the Montreal Jr. Canadiens, who would go on to win the Memorial Cup. It’s worth noting that the Jr. Canadiens played in the OJHL, where they ousted Shaw’s Black Hawks from the best-of-seven championship final in five games.
Hodge’s impressive season in Sorel opened up an opportunity for him to coach in the International Hockey League, with a team in Flint, Mich. He would spend four seasons in Flint.
Meanwhile, Shaw returned to Edmonton where he coached the Oil Kings, winning the WCHL’s 1971-72 title in his first season. That put the Oil Kings into what was the first Memorial Cup to be decided in a tournament format — this one also featured the Peterborough Petes and Cornwall Royals, but no host team — in Ottawa. The Oil Kings were eliminated with a 5-0 loss to Cornwall during which Edmonton defenceman Keith Mackie, Innes’s brother, was struck in an eye by a deflected puck and suffered a torn iris. For the record, Cornwall edged Peterborough 2-1 in the final.
The next season, Hunter, the Oilers’ general manager who was most impressed with Shaw's championship season with the Oil Kings, offered him the head-coaching job with the WHA team. When Shaw accepted, Hunter hired Hodge to coach the Oil Kings.
"I jumped at the opportunity because the Oil Kings were a very prestigious team," Hodge remembers. "I wanted to get on with my career in hockey and I saw too many people stagnating in Flint."
As it turned out, Hodge made the wrong move at the wrong time. He got caught in a rebuilding program with the Oil Kings. Much of the talent from the previous season graduated and Hunter gave Hodge a little over a year to win. He didn't, so Hunter fired him.
Meanwhile, Shaw's Oilers got off to an amazing start — winning 18 straight games. Unfortunately for Shaw, the team was playing over its head and it didn't take long for reality to set in. Hunter enjoyed the winning streak and wanted it to continue. When the wins stopped coming, Hunter, never know for his patience or for a willingness to avoid headlines, fired Shaw.
Two months later brought Shaw, Hodge and Mackie to a pool room in Stettler.
Eventually, Shaw's group bought the Oil Kings from Hunter and 16 games into the 1975-76 WCHL season the three amigos became the WCHL club’s new management team. Shaw was the general manager, Hodge the head coach and Mackie the trainer.
However, things weren’t all coming up roses. Shaw's one year at the helm of the Oil Kings was less than successful. Edmonton hockey fans weren’t in any hurry to go to the old Memorial Gardens to watch the Oil Kings when they could watch the WHA’s Oilers in the brand new Northlands Coliseum.
"Brian and I felt we knew more about the game than anyone else," Hodge says. "We thought we would be able to turn the Edmonton Oil Kings into the premier franchise in the Western Hockey League and a very profitable venture. We found out very quickly that we weren't as smart as we thought we were. We thought we could compete with a major league team on a minor league budget, but we lost more money than any of us could afford to lose.”
Mackie had played on Shaw’s and Hodge's Oil Kings and, contrary to what you might have guessed, the relationship didn't begin on the best of terms. When Mackie was an 18-year-old defenceman playing for Shaw in Edmonton, he had been asked to go to Crosstown Motors, an Oil Kings sponsor, and pick up a new car for Shaw.
"Innes and Brian probably came to an understanding after Innes smacked up two of Brian's brand new cars," Hodge says with a laugh. "One of the accidents was just one of those things, but the other was pretty funny. Innes went to Crosstown Motors, picked up Brian's big Dodge, and only had to cross one busy two-way street. Smack! He couldn't have been more than 40 feet out of the parking lot when he's done and it's tow truck city."
As a player, Mackie quit the Oil Kings early in the 1973-74 season after being taken out of a game by Hodge.
"It's all water under the bridge now," Mackie says. "When I was 18, I played for Brian as a fifth or sixth defenceman. At that time they only used four defencemen and sometimes three. I wasn't getting very much ice time and I wasn't going to go through the same thing when I was 19. So, Hodgie sat me out one game and that was it. Goodbye.“
"Innes and I didn't see eye to eye as coach and player," Hodge agrees. "But I always enjoyed Innes as a person. His brother Keith and I were golfing buddies and Innes was the little brother who always tagged along."
Even through their trials and tribulations, Hodge had enough respect for Mackie to make him the Oil Kings trainer.
Since then, Mackie has always been more than just a trainer. He looks for statistics, quotes and any other information he can find out about every player in the league. One of his attributes is a near photographic memory, and Hodge and Shaw came to depend on that over the years. If there is ever a question about a player, Mackie is the first person asked.
"Innes sometimes confirmed my feelings about hockey players," Hodge says. "He has always been a very knowledgeable hockey person. Innes helped Brian and I on some of our decisions on who we would keep and who we would release or trade. He also had input on people from other teams that might help our franchise if we traded for them. The early years of the Winter Hawks was basically built through trades. Most of our trades were very positive for us and Innes had a role in many of them.”
Mackie also scours the rule book on the long bus rides. He knows the rules inside and out — and has a knack for memorizing them, no matter how obscure.
Mackie earned the nickname ‘Eagle Eye’ for his ability to spot illegal curves in the blades of opponents' hockey sticks. Players with illegal sticks were sent to the penalty box with minor penalties and several Portland victories were been earned as the result of subsequent power plays. In 18 seasons, he was wrong about one stick — and he still claims that the referee didn’t measure that one properly.
"When the game is on, I watch things differently," Mackie, who now is with the Tri-City Americans, points out. "I watch what's happening behind the play, on the other team's bench, and away from the puck. If I see something the coaches don't, I can help out once in awhile. Sometimes, I can relay information to the coaches if an opposing player misses a shift, or a guy is hurt."
All three of the amigos were involved in the move from Edmonton to Portland.
Originally, Shaw went to Vancouver to meet with Nat Bailey, who owned the Mounties of baseball’s Pacific Coast League. Bailey wanted to get involved in hockey and was going to underwrite all the costs of moving the Oil Kings to Vancouver. Bailey also was prepared to give Shaw plenty of working capital to get started. This dream move never happened, however, because the New Westminster Bruins, a nearby WCHL franchise, blocked the move.
At the time, Hodge wanted to move to Spokane. Shaw, though, wanted to check out Portland and arranged a meeting with Dick Reynolds, the general manager of Memorial Coliseum.
"I didn't have any idea where Portland was," Mackie says. "I had to get a map. All I knew was that the Edmonton Oil Kings were in the Western Canadian Hockey League — and Portland wasn't in Canada."
Shaw’s meeting with Reynolds and the Coliseum staff was very positive and soon the Oil Kings were to become the Portland Winter Hawks.
"It was one of the best decisions that Brian made," Hodge recalls. "At that time, we both had an equal vote. So, it was one vote for Spokane and one vote for Portland. Brian decided his vote was bigger than mine and he won."
The first three seasons were very difficult in Portland.
In spite of good, competitive teams, large crowds in 10,400-seat Memorial Coliseum were a rarity. The team was losing money and several of the original investors from Edmonton pulled out when the going got tough. But Shaw, Hodge and Mackie never doubted the potential of the Portland hockey market. The three amigos hung in there and waited for Portland fans to discover the excitement of junior hockey.
"We raised our level of communication — and we communicated without a lot of words," Hodge says. "We had a very good understanding of one another — and we went through some very difficult times in our early years in Portland. There were times when we didn't know if we had enough money to bring the bus home. We had a good, solid relationship. Relationships are built on trust — and we trusted one another."
That trust was only broken one time and that was in the early days of the Winter Hawks. On an off-night in Lethbridge during the 1977-78 season, Mackie went out to do the team laundry and ended up having a couple of beers with several players.
"At the time, I was about the same age as the players — and I had known them as friends and even played hockey with some of them,” Mackie recalls. “I should have been smart enough to know there is a fine line between being a staff member and getting too close to the players."
"I had to fire him," Hodge says. "I really didn't have any options there. I was told to do it because somebody else (Shaw) didn't want to. I can't remember if he was fired for two hours, four hours or a half-a-day, but during this other person's cooling-off period, I convinced him to rehire Innes. Eventually, that other person did the rehiring."
They stuck together in other times of strife, too. From 1987 to 1991, the Hawks had terrible teams — missing the playoffs three of four seasons. This did not set well with Portland fans who had become accustomed to the winning tradition established by the Buckaroos and the early seasons of the Winter Hawks. Hodge became an easy target for the fans. It even came to the point where petitions were being circulated among the Coliseum crowd to have him terminated as coach. Publicly, though, Shaw took most of the criticism for the Hawks' poor on-ice record and deflected as much blame as he could away from Hodge.
"I appreciated what Brian did, but I didn't really feel it was necessary," Hodge says. "My record spoke for itself through the good seasons and Brian knew a coaching change might have injected some short term life into the team, but it would not solve the problem long term.
"We didn't have a very good product on the ice. We had some very good people that were not necessarily very good athletes. Some of the problems with the product were Brian's fault and some were my fault. Brian did take a lot of the heat."
Shaw's passing in 1994 was clearly an emotional time for Hodge and Mackie. The three amigos had been through it all together. The highs and lows. The good times and the bad. They always stuck together even though many times they agreed to disagree.
"It's very obvious to anyone who has worked in this office or is in any way connected with the Portland Winter Hawks that Brian's sense of loyalty was tremendous," Hodge notes. "His sense of loyalty was unwavering and nothing got in the way. Not dollars. Not wins. Nothing gets in front of loyalty."
This is a sense of loyalty that has been ingrained from standing up for one another in a Stettler pool room to building a hockey franchise. Very few have achieved what these amigos have.

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