Initial Thoughts on the New Winterhawks Owners

After hitting the market shortly after the pandemic ended their season, the Winterhawks’ new owners officially took over on January 1st, buying the storied franchise for $5.85 million.  Since then, it’s become clear that the people involved in the ownership group have the hockey and business bonafides necessary to better fulfill the potential Portland has as a hockey town.  Despite a history of skepticism, this author is excited about the team’s future, and here’s why you should be too.

The new entity formed for ownership, Winterhawks Sports Group, is run by managing partners Kerry Preete (pictured above on the right) and Michael Kramer (left).  The tie that binds these two is their work with agricultural corporate giant Monsanto; the former was a VP there, and the latter owns the brokerage firm that managed Monsanto’s sale to Bayer.  Preete grew up in Saskatchewan, and played both junior and college hockey in Canada before embarking on an impressive business career from which he recently retired. Kramer rose from “blue collar roots” to the top of Wall Street, and currently owns a dual sheet hockey rink in Norwalk, CT.  Right off the bat, these two pass the litmus test, so it was icing on the cake to find out that longtime NHL executive Peter Luukko is working with them as well.  Luukko is currently the chairman of Oak View Group’s facilities division, overseeing the construction of the Seattle Kraken’s practice arena.  He previously worked on Winter Classics and the Frozen Four during his time with the Flyers, and just like Preete, he coaches youth hockey in his spare time. They also retained the existing staff, including President Doug Piper and GM/Head Coach Mike Johnston, so the transition should go as smoothly as one could expect in the current circumstances.

Their introduction through the organization brought some interesting tidbits, including how Kramer previously served on the board of the Rose Garden prior to the arena’s sponsorship agreement with Moda Health.  The new owners also discussed their intention to remodel and improve the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, focusing on it as the primary facility and “day-to-day home” with the goal of making it “one of the most exciting venues” in junior hockey.  They were deliberately vague, but given the unknowns facing their franchise’s upcoming season, it was as forthcoming as they could be at the moment.  When addressing Portland’s hockey community, they were excited for the opportunity to have the local youth hockey program under the franchise’s purview, and they mentioned their recent discussions with community leaders about how to expand it.  They didn’t explicitly mention building a new facility, but it’s clear they are aware of the need for more ice, and the aforementioned involvement of Luukko means someone with experience building rinks from the ground up is part of the team.  Combining that with Kramer’s experience owning a privately held community rink bodes well for Portland finally getting more sheets. The previous owner promised a facility but never delivered; his lack of experience with privately owned community rinks was evident as the project was continually delayed and never broke ground. The proposed public/private hybrid approach didn’t work as expected, and may have ruined the possibility of publicly financed/managed community rinks in Portland over the long haul.

On the topic of rinks, just last month the new owner of Sherwood Ice Arena shut down the rink due to restrictions in place because of the pandemic, describing it as “…the end of any skating activity in the future of Sherwood.”  While that seems a bit hyperbolic, losing one of the few rinks in the area for the foreseeable future is a tough pill to swallow for anyone itching to get back on the ice once the restrictions are rolled back.  Should the rink go up for sale again, the new Winterhawks ownership group would be in a good position to buy it.  The current owner invested in a VR hockey training station and started a new youth travel program, so it’s possible there were more plans in store for the facility, like adding a sheet on the rink-shaped patch of grass next to the building.  Regardless of who owns it going forward, SIA is an important cornerstone of hockey in Portland, so the sooner it can reopen the better.  A recent campaign gathering testimonies of what SIA means to Oregonians was submitted to the Governor’s office, so our elected officials are aware of the perilous situation the rink is in.

Back to the new ownership, another interview with Kramer briefly touched on the topic of the Winterhawks logo, and he mentioned that the league requires 18 month notification of an alteration.  He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the team’s classic logo and spoke fondly of it, but also mentioned performing due diligence on whether or not keeping the logo is right for the community.  With both the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians recently removing Native American imagery from their teams, Winterhawks fans should be prepared for the possibility of an eventual change.  That said, it’s a difficult topic that will evoke emotional responses from many people, so the owners should tread carefully.

After a long period of uncertainty, just knowing that new owners were in place would have been relieving enough, but the apparent engagement and acknowledgement of the local hockey community’s potential is very encouraging.  Here’s to hoping they are able to successfully tap it in the near future.

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