A time of change for Winterhawks
Summer is a time of change in the hockey world, especially at the junior hockey level, where players, coaches and executives are often looking to move up the professional ladder.
Given that, the Portland Winterhawks enjoyed unusual stability during the era that began when Bill Gallacher bought the club in 2008.
But the summer of 2021 is one of significant change for the Western Hockey League club.
On Tuesday, June 8, the club announced that team president Doug Piper resigned. On Wednesday, June 9, came news that longtime assistant coach Kyle Gustafson is leaving to become an assistant coach for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
Also, Kelley Robinett, a senior VP in charge of business operations who has been with the club since 1999, is no longer a full-time Winterhawks employee.
Gustafson was ready for a jump to the pros after serving as the right-hand man for Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston. And, given that the club's new owners Michael Kramer and Kerry Preete appear ready to take a more hands-on approach than Gallacher did, management changes are certainly not surprising.
Piper and Robinett each said he is confident the new owners will be good for the Winterhawks.
"These are really good guys and smart businessmen," Piper said.
For Piper, a Portland native, the opportunity to lead the business side of the Portland Winterhawks was too good to pass up.
In 2008, when Gallacher bought the struggling Western Hockey League franchise, Piper was charged with revitalizing a once-strong brand that had withered off the ice and on.
It is that turnaround Piper is most proud of as he leaves the WHL club.
"We had to rebuild trust in the organization within the community," Piper said.
Some of the significant steps included programs to bring school kids to what is now Winterhawks Skating Center for skating clinics and developing a floor hockey program for local schools.
A turning point, Piper remembers, was honoring one of the most successful in professional hockey during the 1960s during a March 2009 Portland Buckaroos reunion staged by the Winterhawks.
"That was a big event that first year. It really started is on the way to rebuilding the brand in the marketplace," Piper said.
Winning helped, of course. Johnston built a winning team on the ice and Piper and his team promoted it while the two became a strong partnership leading the organization. Piper is particularly proud that the Winterhawks' revenue grew 12% annually between 2009 and 2012.
Steering the Winterhawks through the ownership change and the pandemic was the most significant challenge of his tenure, Piper said, adding that he is looking forward to having time to recharge and explore.
He is not ready to retire, though.
Piper, who had a consulting business before joining the Winterhawks, plans to stay in Portland while seeking opportunities to help sports franchises with social media and technology challenges as they recover from the pandemic.
Gustafson, a 1999 graduate of Centennial High in Gresham, has been with the Winterhawks since 2003 as an assistant coach. He has been the club's top assistant for several years and was named assistant general manager in 2018. For four seasons, Gustafson worked alongside Travis Green on the Winterhawks staff.
His new job will reunite him with Green, entering his fourth season as the Canucks' head coach.
"It's really flattering to be considered for a job in the National Hockey League," Gustafson told Winterhawks.com. "To work in the NHL is something that everyone dreams of and all coaches strive for. Getting the chance to work for the Vancouver Canucks, and to work once again with Travis (Green), is a great opportunity and something that I didn't want to pass up."
Johnston told Winterhawks.com that Gustafson earned this opportunity.
"He's become one of the most sought-after coaches in the Western Hockey League and he's a personal friend," Johnston said. "I have a great respect for his work ethic and the quality of his coaching skills."
Robinett said he, like Piper, will explore consulting opportunities. A Kent, Washington native, Robinett joined the Winterhawks ticket sales team in 1999, his first job after graduating from Washington State University. It was, he said, a logical first step toward his goal of a career in sports.
While still selling tickets, Robinett worked on the computer coding for one of the club's first websites. As he climbed from ticket account manager to director of operations and marketing and eventually to the title of VP of marketing, Robinett was instrumental at positioning the Winterhawks at the forefront of using technology — from email lists to social media to locally televising games against Seattle — to engage with fans.
He said the opportunity to work with so many amazing people is his most cherished memory from more than two decades with the Winterhawks.
As for what's next?
"It's about time I decided what to do when I grow up," Robinett said with a laugh.
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