Winterhawks' new owners are fans of hockey, Portland market
The new owners of the Winterhawks don't live in Portland, but Michael Kramer and Kerry Preete are no strangers to the region, the Western Hockey League or the sport.
Kramer lives in Connecticut and Preete in Arizona, but they say they won't be strangers to Portland once their group takes control of the Winterhawks on Jan. 1, 2021.
"We want to be visible out in the community and with the team," Preete said during a Dec. 22 interview with the Portland Tribune. "In the first few weeks and months, we want to get perspective from fans, sponsors and civic leaders about what is going well and what can be improved."
Kramer and Preete are the managing partners for Winterhawks Sports Group, the name of a group of seven investors who next week will take over ownership of the Winterhawks. Preete will represent the club on the WHL Board of Governors.
Doug Piper will remain president of the Winterhawks and Mike Johnston will continue as general manager and coach. Johnston said his staff members, including trainer Rich Campbell and equipment manager Mark Brennan, are anxiously awaiting the approval of a WHL return-to-play plan so they can return to work.
Key personnel at Winterhawks Skating Center and with the club's youth hockey program, which are part of the Winterhawks Sports Group acquisition, also will be retained.
"One of the real assets to the team has been the hockey operation and what Mike (Johnston) has been able to put together," Kramer said. "We think very highly of the whole group."
According to court documents, Winterhawks Sports Group purchased the club for $5.85 million from the receiver who took control of the Winterhawks in May as a result of Chapter 15 bankruptcy proceedings against Bill Gallacher. Gallacher, who purchased the Winterhawks in 2008 and helped build a team that climbed from the bottom of the league to the top, used the club as collateral for a loan he defaulted on.
One of the new owners is Peter Luukko, a leader in the hockey and sports venue industries who spent more than 25 years as president and chief operating officer for Comcast-Spectacor, overseeing the Philadelphia Flyers and serving on the NHL Board of Governors. Since 2015, Luukko has been executive chairman of the Florida Panthers.
As chairman of Oak View Group Facilities, Luukko is involved in the development of Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home of the NHL's Seattle Kraken. He also is involved with the development of the future home arena of the New York Islanders.
Luukko served on a task force that was responsible for player safety during the NHL's 2020 playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. He is on an Oak View Group task force that is creating plans for how venues can safely return fans following the pandemic.
Preete first heard the Winterhawks were seeking new owners from Willie Desjardins, coach and general manager of the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers. Preete and Desjardins were teammates and roommates at the University of Saskatchewan, where Preete was a defenseman in the early 1980s.
Preete said he initially wasn't interested in purchasing the Winterhawks. But when Desjardins mentioned in September that the club was still seeking owners, Preete reached out to Kramer and began exploring the situation.
Both Kramer and Preete were familiar with the club. Kramer and Luukko have in the past served on the Rose Quarter board. Preete grew up in Saskatchewan and played in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and through his time playing at the University of Saskatchewan is friends with Desjardins and Lethbridge Hurricanes GM Peter Anholt.
The top priority once Winterhawks Sports Group takes over will be working with the WHL to plan for a 2021 season, Kramer said. Until that is determined, most of the club's employees remain furloughed.
Reflecting on his time playing junior hockey, Preete listed three areas where he wants the Winterhawks to excel: Strong billet homes, top-notch nutrition and training programs and a focus on education for players in high school and college.
"If you do those things well, you will have success and win games," Preete said.
An extension of the team's lease at Veterans Memorial Coliseum is in the works.
"The Veterans Memorial Coliseum, to me, is an ideal junior hockey arena," Preete said, citing the building's size.
Kramer and Preete said their interest in owning the Winterhawks goes beyond building a winning junior hockey club. Winterhawks Sports Group also acquired the lease to run Beaverton's Winterhawks Skating Center and the Winterhawks Junior Hockey youth program.
Both Kramer and Preete have coached youth hockey (Preete volunteered for two decades in the St. Louis area while an executive with Monsanto). They said having the youth hockey program played a significant role in their interest in purchasing the Winterhawks.
The enthusiasm for youth hockey and player development are two reasons Kramer and Preete see Portland as a rich hockey market. The arrival of the NHL in Seattle next season might increase interest in the sport regionally, but Kramer said that wasn't a factor in the decision to purchase the Winterhawks.
"We think Portland actually is a great hockey town on its own," Kramer said.
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