Anatomy of a Dynasty: The Portland Winterhawks

In PWH, Special Features on April 20, 2011 at 9:34 am

Somewhere along the way the Portland Winterhawks went from champions to unstoppable juggernaut. Somewhere along the way they became a dynasty.

They won the Gump Cup in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. And during those four best-of-seven championship series, they’ve lost exactly two games. They’ve dominated the GWMHL for nearly half a decade.

And it happened almost overnight.

So what turned a sub-.500 team into a league-leading force?

The answer, more or less, is trades. Trades, a little luck, and cojones the size of the state of Oregon.

Our analysis after the jump.

The Lean Years and the First Run

In 2006, the Winterhawks were coming off a series of very mediocre seasons – including a last-place finish in 2003. But they had a solid core led by Joe Thornton – enough to stay marginally competitive at least. At the end of the lockout-extended 2004-2006 season, after missing the playoffs with a 37-41-4 record, Portland’s three leading scorers were:

Thornton  21  52  73
Havlat    39  25  64
Ruutu     23  33  56

The turnaround came down to eight days in December.

Yeah, this guy made all the difference

It began on draft day on December 2nd, 2006, when Portland executed a blockbuster deal to extract Ilya Kovalchuk out of South Park – the ‘Hawks had been stockpiling draft picks during the down years, and they could suddenly use those assets (and defenseman Ron Hainsey) to give Thornton his new left arm.

Three days later, they dealt promising young defensemen Keith Ballard and Mike Van Ryn, along with forwards Petr Cajanek and Niklas Hagman, to Sacramento (now Nashville) for Shane Doan and John-Michael Liles.

On December 7th, the Oregon Rugrats picked up an aging Dominik Hasek from the Bristol River Rats for a second rounder – important, because three days later, Oregon flipped Hasek to Portland for Mathieu Garon.

Doan and Kovalchuk immediately formed a deadly top line with Thornton, who suddenly went from solid performer to superstar.

Thornton  26  114 140
Doan      60  66  126
Kovalchuk 67  55  122

At the end of the 2006-2007 season, the Winterhawks had amassed a 60-16-6 record. And the aging, oft-injured Hasek? He was done. There’s no way a goaltender at that stage of his career could lead a team.

Except that he did. The Winterhawks lost only twice in the post-season en route to a 5-game victory over San Diego for their first Gump Cup.

From One-Shot to Dynasty

That flurry of deals in December ’08 sparked the turnaround, but one good year isn’t the foundation for a dynasty. The team had risen from the ashes – a post-Cup hangover was inevitable, right?

That’s when brass balls really come in. Because it’s one thing to make bold moves to build a championship team – and another to take that champ and keep shaking up the roster.

We almost forgot about him.

On draft day heading into the 2007-2008 season, the Winterhawks made one of the biggest deals in league history, dealing budding star Patrick Marleau, along with Kris Beech, Maxime Talbot, and Nikolai Zherdev to the Altoona Railroaders for forwards Cory Stillman and Kyle Wellwood.

Oh, and the ‘Hawks also got Jarome Iginla in the deal, completing the most dominant line in the GWMHL. In one move, they established a roster that would strike fear into the hearts of conference rivals for years to come.

(Incidentally, the deal didn’t work out so well for Altoona, who dealt Marleau away the next day. Zherdev is the only remnant of that trade still on the roster.)

That year, they swept Charleston in the Finals. And they haven’t stopped tinkering since, shoring up the blue line and in goal. Catastrophic injury? Portland doesn’t miss a beat. And now, with three out of four teams in its division rebuilding, they look poised for another run.

Between 1993 and 2010, the Gump Cup has been awarded 16 times. Portland now lays claim to one quarter of this championships. The next closest has three Cups, but it took that team – the Morgan Hill Lynx, now El Dorado – five straight finals appearances to win its first two. In the time Portland has asserted itself as the GWMHL’s all-time greatest champ, teams have risen and collapsed. Hopes have swelled.

Do this season’s contenders have what it takes to end the streak? If it does happen, it’ll be an upset for the ages.


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