When discussing the possibility of Portland having pro hockey, the Portland Winterhawks are an important part of the conversation. A longstanding franchise, the Winterhawks first dropped the puck in the 70’s, around the same time as the Trail Blazers’ storied NBA championship. Numerous big names in hockey developed their skills while playing for the Winterhawks, including Cam Neely, Seth Jones, Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter.
The Juniors model is intended for players between the ages of 16-20, with the rare exception granted to 15-year olds demonstrating extraordinary talent. In the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the players receive billet housing and a small monthly stipend, which unfortunately results in them losing NCAA eligibility. Three leagues are a part of the CHL: the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. The Winterhawks compete in the WHL, along with four teams in the state of Washington.
You’ll notice I’ve avoided referring to the Winterhawks as either professional or amateur; this is the great debate these days, and it threatens the very business model upon which Major Juniors relies. A class action lawsuit was filed in Canadian court late last year, seeking outstanding wages, overtime pay and vacation pay from the CHL. More than 350 current and former players chose to take part in the suit. The current pay structure provides up to $500 a month to the players; paying the minimum wage for 40 hours a week would result in the highest monthly stipend becoming everyone’s weekly stipend. Players argue they are professionals and deserve to receive consideration as employees, but the league argues they are amateurs and should be exempt from minimum wage laws. The league also claimed that a minimum wage would bankrupt several franchises.
This past February, the lawsuit took an unexpected turn when the judge required the teams to unseal documents disclosing their financial statements. It’s possible these statements will contrast the claim of potential bankruptcies. A few teams (including the Winterhawks) received penalties for improper recruiting and/or benefits over the past decade, with former players confirming that the top recruits receive six figure bonuses under the table. It is possible that these financial statements could have some payments along those lines buried in the accounting ledgers, opening up another can of worms and harming the image of the league.
Regarding the bankruptcy claim, are the Winterhawks a team that would fold if forced to pay players minimum wage? Likely not. The Winterhawks have the highest attendance of any American team in the CHL, and the third highest in the entire league. If anything, the Winterhawks demonstrate that pro hockey would succeed in Portland.
But should Portland attract a pro franchise, what would become of the Winterhawks? While they are successful now, they would no longer thrive if there is a higher level of hockey in town. Could they move? Would they fold? Would they be able to find the same level of success in a new location?
A few potential destinations come to mind. Salem, Bend, Vancouver (WA), Olympia, Wenatchee, Eugene, Bellingham and more would all be worth consideration. Only Wenatchee currently has a rink up to Major Junior standards, and they already have a tenant competing in a Juniors league. The Wenatchee Wild are the lone American team in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), which does not compensate players in order to retain their eligibility for NCAA hockey. This means unless they move to Wenatchee, the team would almost certainly need to build an arena or renovate an existing facility when relocating. Keep in mind, however, that the Winterhawks are owned by Bill Gallacher, a billionaire from Calgary. Whether or not they relocate or fold would be up to him. He has publicly stated he would like to own an NHL team, so he may lose interest in owning a hockey team at this level.
It’s hard to imagine the Winterhawks finding the same level of success in any other mentioned locations, but Canadian cities were not considered as potential destinations. Much like Wenatchee could step up from the BCHL to WHL, the other cities in the BCHL could do the same. Both British Columbia and Washington recently added amendments to their labor laws to exclude junior hockey players from being subjected to minimum wage or child labor; Oregon has not, making an intrastate move less likely if it involves building a new arena.
A pro hockey team in Portland has yet to peak over the horizon, but the possibility is there. What happens to the Winterhawks matters to the fans, the WHL, and the legacy of hockey in the Pacific Northwest. It is a topic this blog will continue to touch base on in the future as it unfolds.