Winterhawks induct four 1998 Cup winners into Hall of Fame
They flew in from points mostly far away — Michigan, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Canada, even Slovakia.
They convened for 48 hours of togetherness and brotherhood, to rekindle relationships that, in some cases, had lay dormant for two decades.
The 1998 Memorial Cup champion Winterhawks returned to Portland for a reunion and a special ceremony inducting four of their players into the franchise's Hall of Fame before the team's 6-2 loss to Tri-City on Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum.
"Some guys, I hadn't seen in 20 years," Brenden Morrow said. "But you know what? It's like you've seen them yesterday. It's like time didn't pass and it was a week ago. I can tell you that 20 years goes by real fast."
I was beat reporter for The Oregonian that season, so what a treat it was to attend a postgame reception Saturday, to shake hands with and exchange a few memories with so many of the then-teenage players now in their late 30s and early 40s.
"It's like a time warp, right?" Andrew Ference observed. "Some guys have changed a lot — gotten bigger and older. Others look like they stepped out of a junior locker room last year. They look the same."
Morrow, Ference (place him in the latter group), Marian Hossa and Todd Robinson were inducted into an exclusive Hall of Fame that had only three members — Ken Hodge, Brent Peterson and Dennis Holland.
Hodge was general manager of the 1998 Hawks. Peterson was head coach. Both were on hand for the weekend's festivities, along with assistant coaches Mike Williamson (now head coach at Tri-City) and Julius Supler and more than 20 of the players. Two more players — goaltender Brent Belecki and left wing Andrej Podkonicky — intended to show but had to cancel due to travel problems.
Supler and Hossa flew in from Slovakia. Hossa left during Saturday night's game to return to Slovakia and his wife, who had been in a minor automobile accident.
Hawks management rented the Widmer Brothers Taproom Friday night for a gathering that included the current Portland players. A Canadian comedian, Kelly Taylor, presided over a "Hot Stove" session on stage in which the four Hall-of-Fame inductees, plus '98 team captain Joey Tetarenko, answered questions and traded barbs with Taylor.
"It was really kind of a roast," said Dean "Scooter" Vrooman, radio play-by-play voice of the '98 team. "It was hilarious."
The '98 players were also paired up with current players, an opportunity for the youngsters to ask questions and gain knowledge from the former players. Some of that was displayed on the coliseum video scoreboard during Saturday night's game.
"Cody Glass interviewed me," Robinson said. "We shared our stories and the process it took for us to win the Memorial Cup. Those kids are hungry to do that. Everybody needs some guidance. We had that when we were going through it."
On Saturday night at the coliseum, the players and coaches sat at tables signing posters and other items for fans. The line snaked all through the back side of the arena, snarling foot traffic in the building.
"We thought it was just going to be for the first intermission," Vrooman said. "The guys were really gracious."
The group signed autographs through the second period and the second intermission, too, for the thousands who waited.
"I've been around sports for 30 years, and I've never seen anything like it," Hawks President Doug Piper said.
Eight players from the 1998 squad made it to the NHL; 17 more played professionally. There was plenty of talent, but there was more to their run to the Memorial Cup, symbolic of supremacy in North American major junior hockey.
"We had good players, but we didn't have better players than some of the other good teams," said Peterson, 60, the captain of the original Winterhawk team in 1976-77. "Marian, Andrew and Brenden were great players, but the rest of them were just good junior players.
"But the guys loved each other. They loved playing for each other. They didn't care who got the glory as long as the job got done. They came to play every night. We had everything going for us that year."
"The guys had a confidence and a swagger," Williamson said. "That was a big thing. They put their money where their mouths were. It wasn't a cocky team, but they had a belief in themselves, and they were focused. It seemed like a team that wasn't going to be denied. And the leadership on that team was phenomenal."
The previous season, Portland had gone 46-21-5 and won the Western Division but lost in the first round of the playoffs.
"We learned a lot from the year before, being a good team that wasn't quite ready to win big," said Jason LaBarbera, the backup goalie on both teams. "Oh yeah — we got Marian Hossa, too. That helped a lot."
The acquisition of Hossa (Hoe-suh) is a story in itself. The 6-1, 190-pound right wing was a prodigy in his native country, having played on Slovakia's senior national team as a 17-year-old. Hossa was Ottawa's first pick, 12th overall, in the 1997 NHL draft, and shortly after signed a three-year, $2.5-million contract with the Senators. Coincidentally, Portland traded two protected players and a future draft pick to Calgary to move up to fifth in the Canadian Hockey League European draft to select Hossa.
Hodge had met with Ottawa officials and learned there was a good chance the Senators would allow Hossa to play a season in Portland. Head coach Jacques Martin had been an assistant coach with Colorado at the same time ex-Hawk Adam Deadmarsh was playing for the Avalanche. "Portland is a good organization, with a team I would think has a good chance to get to the Memorial Cup," Martin told me that September. "I think it is perfect for Marian."
The Hawks also had a cultural chip to use. Slovakian Richard Zednik had thrived with the team before an NHL career that spanned from 1996-2009. Podkonicky, acquired the season before, grew up a 90-minute drive from Hossa's hometown. They had played together on Slovakia's 18-and-under national team. Before the 1997-98 season, the Hawks hired Julius Supler, who had coached five years in Slovakia with Hossa's father, Frantisek, including three with the country's national team.
But Hossa led the Senators in scoring during the exhibition season and began the regular season with Ottawa. He probably would have stayed in Ottawa had not the Senators signed holdout Daniel Alfredsson, the team's leading playoff scorer from the previous year, the week Hossa was sent to Portland.
Hossa had no goals and one assist in seven regular-season games with Ottawa, then was sent to the Hawks "to get a chance to gain confidence and assertiveness playing against kids his age," Martin said.
Peterson had his fingers crossed to the moment Hossa arrived.
"I wasn't going to believe it until I saw the whites of his eyes," Peterson told me at the time.
Hossa arrived eight games into Portland's season and had an immediate impact. Called "Hoss" by his teammates here, he had a remarkable blend of speed and power. Strong, powerful legs helped him carry defenders to the nets with him. He was in and out of the Hawks' lineup that season due to commitments with the Slovakian national team, but still scored 45 goals and 85 points in 53 regular-season games and another 13 goals in the postseason.
Portland was the top-ranked North American junior team through most of the season. The Hawks became the first WHL club ever with three separate win streaks of 10 games or more and ended the postseason with nine straight victories. They finished the regular season with a league-best record of 53-14-5, including 30-3-3 at home, never losing two games in a row.
Before the playoffs, the players all dyed their hair blond as a display of unity. Later, about half of them grew beards or goatees. At the time, the straight-laced Peterson told me, "I just shut my eyes and let it go."
Portland survived a cutthroat seven-game Western Conference finals series with Spokane, winning Game 7 3-2 on Podkonicky's third-period goal. His sea-lion slide of celebration stands as one of those epic moments in Hawk history.
The Hawks swept East champion Brandon in the finals, outscoring the Wheat Kings 23-9 in the four games to claim their first WHL title since 1982. Bobby Russell — who had scored Portland's first two goals in the deciding game of the West finals — tallied the game-winner in Game 4. Then it was back to Spokane for the Memorial Cup to vie with Guelph, Ontario, Val-d'Or, Quebec, and host Spokane for the top prize.
Portland opened with a 6-2 win over Guelph, with goalie Belecki standing on his head to makie 40 saves. The Hawks then beat Val-d'Or 7-4, roaring back from a 4-3 deficit with four third-period goals, Podkonicky leading the way with a hat trick.
Portland followed that by topping Spokane 4-2, with Hossa scoring two goals. That sent the Hawks directly to the finals against Guelph, with Russell's rebound goal in overtime lifting the Hawks to a 4-3 win over the Storm, touching off one of the most madcap sports scenes I've witnessed first-hand.
The finish came after Hossa was lost to a torn MCL knee injury late in regulation play. Trainer Innes Mackie brought him out in a wheelchair onto the ice for the celebration and trophy presentation.
Belecki, who led the WHL in goals-against average and saves percentage, was first-team all-WHL and a unanimous selection for WHL playoffs MVP. Hossa and Ference also were first-team all-league, and Hossa was the league's Rookie of the Year.
But they had plenty of help getting the Hawks to the Promised Land.
Robinson, who led the league in scoring the previous season, was the Hawks' top scorer with 35 goals and 109 points and the WHL playoffs scoring leader. Podkonicky had seven goals and the opportunistic Russell five in the four Memorial Cup games.
Tetarenko was a burly right wing who policed the ice. Chris Jacobson was, at 21, the greybeard of the group, a checking center and character guy.
Then there was 5-7, 148-pound right wing Marty Standish, who besides scoring 29 regular-season goals was full of piss and vinegar. The Hawks' resident pest was an agitator who created havoc at every turn and was an expert at drawing a retaliation penalty. He was a fan favorite at home and a villain on the road.
"I like it when they hold up a sign that says, 'Standish, you stink!' " Marty told me back then. "Then you score a goal or knock somebody over and rub it in their face." The Tri-City Herald had him third in player voting for the league's "Most irritating player." Standish was genuinely ticked off not to be the winner.
After the WHL finals, Hossa told me, "This is good. One junior Cup, and maybe some day, one senior Cup, too."
He would go on to win three Stanley Cups with Chicago and play in five Stanley Cup finals, becoming the first NHL player to appear in consecutive finals with three different teams (Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago). Hossa, 38, is a five-time All-Star who has scored 526 goals in 1,309 career regular-season games in his 19-year NHL career, plus 52 goals in 205 playoff games.
Hossa isn't the only ex-Hawk to have had a distinguished NHL career.
Morrow, a left wing who loved to muck it up in the trenches and was an almost unmovable force in the crease for the Hawks, played 15 NHL seasons — 12 1/2 seasons with Dallas. He made it to the Stanley Cup finals twice — in his rookie year with the Stars and in his final season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Morrow made the All-Star Game in 2008, played in 118 playoff games and won a goal medal with Team Canada in the 2010 Olympic Games. He retired in 2015 at 36.
The 5-10, 180-pound Ference didn't let size stop him from enjoying a 16-year NHL career. The defenseman played with four NHL teams, appearing in 907 regular-season games and 120 playoff games, and he won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011. He retired in 2016 at 37.
Josh Green a 6-4, 225-pound center acquired from Swift Current in the offseason, scored 26 goals in 26 games for the Hawks before signing a $2-million deal with the L.A. Kings before Christmas. He went on to play for eight teams during a 13-year NHL career.
The 6-3, 230-pound LaBarbera wound up enjoying an 11-year NHL career. He retired from pro hockey in 2016 at 36.
Neither the 5-9, 170-pound Belecki nor the 5-8, 175-pound Robinson — both branded too small — played a game in the NHL, though Robinson flourished through 15 minor-league pro seasons that took him to 12 teams in the WCL, UHL, AHL, IHL, CHL and ECHL, plus a season in Denmark. He retired in 2014 at 35, coached three years and is now selling cars in Muskegon, Michigan, in order to spend more time with his wife and their two daughters.
Robinson was "beyond honored" to enter the Hawks Hall of Fame.
"Going in with those three guys — you kidding me?" he asked rhetorically. "What an unbelievable group. I was so fortunate to get to play with great players the whole time I was here. They made me better; I tried to make them better, too. We won a lot of games. I still get chills thinking about winning the Memorial Cup. A phenomenal time in my life."
Ference and Morrow both put the Memorial Cup second on their career achievement list behind their Stanley Cup experiences — Morrow placing it alongside an Olympic gold medal.
"I hold it right up against the Olympic gold, which was pretty big," said Morrow, who lives in Dallas. "The Memorial Cup wasn't a professional trophy, but it's still a pretty big deal to me."
"I'm not going to lie — the Stanley Cup was better," said Ference, now the NHL's director of social impact. "You dream about that forever. But the Memorial Cup was the first time I experienced the big stage. It was an even longer road than the Stanley Cup, because we won the WHL title, and then had to do it again (in Spokane) on the end. It was a long grind. The Memorial Cup is second only to the Stanley Cup in my career, for sure."
Several players mentioned the coaching prowess of Peterson and Williamson as a key to the team's success.
"You talk to most of our guys who had long pro careers, (Peterson and Williamson) would be right up there for best coaching staffs we ever had," LaBarbara said.
"It's not like the championship teams are vastly different from the teams that lose in, say, the second round," Ference said. "When it all works, it's a combination of having a really good team and guys being selfless. You abandon your individuality and buy into being a team. That's the way it was with us, and it's a credit to Brent. He was really good at making guys know exactly what was expected of them."
Morrow calls his time with the Hawks "some of the best years of my career."
"Years growing up and becoming a man are some of the hardest years," he said. "To go through it with this group was ideal. The friendships will last a lifetime. My four years here were some of my favorites, for sure."
"It was the best experience of my hockey career," said Tetarenko, who played nine years professionally, including parts of four seasons in the NHL. "After we had won the Memorial Cup, and the city and organization was so great to me, I was almost disappointed to go into the pro ranks. I was never able to duplicate that kind of feeling."
For one more weekend, the boys of winter got together again for some fun and frolic.
"It's a wonderful thing the Winterhawks did to bring us back," Tetarenko said. "We don't see each other often enough. To be able to do this as a group is special to us. It allowed us to relive it.
"Over 20 years, you'd think a lot of people would change, but we're still the same group of people. We're still the same 17-to-20-year-old kids who love to be around each other."