Portland Hockey is Good, but Could Be Better

Portland, Oregon is home to the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL). The Winterhawks are three-time WHL champions and two-time Memorial Cup champions. You can expect the team to make deep playoff runs on a consistent basis. But when it comes to the off-ice product, there are strengths such as the great play-by-play announcer they have in Nick Marek. But there are also weaknesses when it comes to the game-day experience and the growth of hockey in the Portland metro area.

The Winterhawks have two great venues that they use throughout the course of each season for their home games. Veterans Memorial Coliseum gives you that old time feel with the smaller seats, long ceiling-to-floor glass windows, single entrance at the front of the venue, and just the feeling of a building that’s been around since 1960.

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Meanwhile, the Moda Center gives off the professional NHL feel when you go in with more vendors, nicer seats, TV screens in certain areas to watch outside the main arena bowl, and more room to mingle with other fans. While they curtain off the top bowl of the venue, it still feels like a professional atmosphere, especially when games against the rival Seattle Thunderbirds are televised on Portland’s CW.

However, when it comes to the game-day experience, it’s always the same with no new exciting promotion or anything. They livened up player introductions a bit and added a siren with a local hero who cranks it prior to the period starting, but that’s seen in many other venues, too. Those in charge of game-day operations also need to work on making improvements to liven up intermissions and breaks in the action.

In addition to the atmosphere, it can be hard to grow the sport when there are such few ice rinks in the metro area. If the Winterhawks organization and others passionate about the sport want to grow it, there needs to be more ice in the metro area. The Winterhawks need to work with local parks and recreation departments to get more rinks down and get people skating. It was said that the team was working on a new two-rink practice facility with Tualatin Hills Parks and Rec, but so far nothing has come of that.

Portland and Other Venues

Just take a look in the Winterhawks Fans Facebook group and you’ll see constant complaints about everything from parking to concession prices. Season ticket and package holders even complain about their free gifts that come with their season ticket or package purchase. When it comes to those complaints, fans need to take a step back and look at how good they have it with one of the winningest teams in WHL history and two great venues.

I’ve been to quite a few different venues throughout different levels of hockey. I’ve been to NHL games at Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks and I’ve volunteered with a college club team as well as Junior-A teams. I’ve seen how some organizations go above and beyond to engage with their fans, some put in just enough, and others don’t hardly engage at all.

When it comes to other WHL venues I’ve been to and the fan atmosphere, teams have kept fans engaged while keeping a loud and exciting atmosphere all game long. A couple years ago I caught an afternoon game at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, home to the Victoria Royals. They had a great, clean venue and great fan engagement all game long. While the Tri-City Americans’ venue isn’t top of the line, their fans fill the bowl and stay loud all game long with their cowbells.

The game I attended in Tri-City was their annual pink the rink night for breast cancer awareness. While pink ice can be a bit more difficult to maintain and not as good for the players when it comes to skating, it helps draw fans in and promote the cause. Portland no longer paints the ice, but rather the players wear jerseys that are later auctioned off to fans to raise money for certain foundations surrounding the cause. If other teams can still paint the ice pink, Portland should, too.

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When it comes to advertising outside of games or online, I’ve noticed Portland has sometimes put up a billboard or have paid for radio advertisements here and there. They’ve also had television ads but only during the select games that are televised. In walking around downtown Victoria, BC you see ads wrapped on the city buses — that would be a great way for the Winterhawks to market to Portland and the greater metro area.

The team did add a couple of games on their app called Toyota Trivia and Top Line. The Toyota Trivia question comes during the second period and if you get the correct answer in quick enough, you can claim a small prize out on the main concourse.

The Top Line is where a fan picks a set line of three players that the team will have on the ice and gains points by said players collecting goals or assists. Then once you have enough points you can claim a prize from the app.

What’s Happening Right Now?

The Winterhawks take part in community events and have programs such as Shop with a Hawk where players will take kids shopping at stores during the holiday season. But it’s not actually the Winterhawks doing that so much as their great Booster Club. The Booster Club does a lot for the organization as far as getting the team out in front of people. The team holds events like away game watch parties and player appearances at sponsors like Les Schwab or Burgerville. They also hold Lift Ticket Night where they give away lift tickets to Mount Hood ski resorts for a certain number of fans that come through the door. But the Winterhawks organization could do a lot more.

The Booster Club also participates in a neighborhood parade and holds fan bus trips during the season. Some teams are more engaged with their booster club and help out with events such as bus trips so players can hear the support on the road. For the Winterhawks, there are two main issues they need to work on. One is growing the sport in the greater Portland metro area, which includes Vancouver, Washington, right across the Columbia River. The other is livening up the atmosphere at games and while it takes money, there are things they could be doing right now to increase fan engagement on a typical game day.

What Can Be Done?

Some teams hold autograph sessions after games or skate with the players during the season. The Winterhawks wouldn’t be able to hold autograph sessions every home game if they had to get on the road, but they could hold them at select games. It’s happened with certain players, but not often. Season ticket and package holders have meet and greet events, but outside that there’s really only one night a year — New Year’s Eve — when all fans get to interact with players. Fans can skate with players and get autographs by even just tossing something over the glass.

New Year’s Eve is always a near sold out or completely sold out crowd as Portland almost always plays host to their I-5 rival, the Thunderbirds. There are blow-up obstacle courses and other things on the concourse that night for fans to take part in as well. But at other games you see fans with cowbells or paper noisemakers. Seattle has foldable paper noisemakers for playoff games and any game against Portland. The Winterhawks have had the noisemakers at select playoff games, but that’s not enough to engage fans during games.

Fans need more promotional events on game day, including different things during game breaks, and even before or after games. I’ve noticed other teams will have different promotions such as certain sections get half-price t-shirts or other things. Another issue is the team taking away events or making them less appealing such as the Burgerville Daylight, now Sunset Classic. The curtains at Veterans Memorial Coliseum are lowered to let the sun shine in on the ice.

Some Problems and Solutions

Sometimes the Daylight Classic got moved back to around 4 o’clock or so due to the glare. It was a hit and a game that always drew a great crowd. But now they hardly promote it and decided to just move it to around 5 o’clock when it’s already almost dark. This defeats the purpose of what the Daylight Classic is about and I’ve seen other fans voice their disapproval. Another promotion that’s changed is the Dash for Cash where people run out on the ice and collect as much cash as possible and curl up their shirt to stuff it in. Now it’s just turned into people in knocker balls and the winner of the tournament gets a certain amount of money.

Fixing the fan experience comes down to engaging fans more, but will only happen if head management is compelled enough to act. The Winterhawks should consider doing fan forums to give their fans a voice. After all, the fans are paying the team their hard-earned money to attend games. I’ve been able to see fan groups for different teams and you don’t see the constant complaints because team keeps fans engaged on social media and at games. The team could hold in-person forums or online ones through social media platforms.

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More team employees could join fan groups on social media to interact with people and provide feedback. The feedback part is huge because so many times the complaints I see are about how someone hasn’t heard from their season ticket representative on some issue. Doing things like this would make for opportunities to change up the game atmosphere during the season, as well as reducing the complaints. More positive fans means a better game atmosphere and more time for people to enjoy the game rather than deal with a staff member for something.

Fan Forums and Lines

They could ask fans what they like, dislike, and might like to see when it comes to the fan experience at games. They could also do this for community events outside of game days as well. Fans could talk about promotions they like, dislike, or miss to where the team could take that into consideration for the future.

A topic often complained about during the season with games played at Veterans Memorial Coliseum are the lines to get inside. Sometimes they’re long enough to where people miss the beginning of the game. I worked for a Minor League Baseball (MiLB) team for a few years and have seen how they get fans through the gate in time for the game. Even days with big promotions that make lines super long, they still get fans in before first pitch.

One reason for this is having a line or even two on a really busy day where fans without bags can get their ticket scanned and get in faster. Something else the team could do that the MiLB does is allowing season ticket holders in fifteen minutes prior to the general public. Doors open an hour prior to puck drop, so letting season ticket and certain package holders in an hour and fifteen minutes prior could alleviate this issue.

What Can Fans Do?

The question of how fans can try and make their voice heard on issues has come up time and again. The topic of writing a letter has been brought up, but a single letter won’t cut it. Fans need to engage staff members at games, on social media, and by email with their suggestions. Whether it be about game-day experience, communication with their ticket rep, or the team’s social media game, these things are the best ways to get the in the ear of the team. Portland does fine social media wise, but they could be better both on issues with their youth hockey programs and just engaging fans in general.

The Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL have taken up a goal or no goal challenge for fans on social media, letting them be the judge with a play from a previous season. Later on after a certain amount of time passes, the team will reveal what the correct call was.

If the Winterhawks could even do something as small as this when there isn’t much going on such as during the offseason, it’d help fans stay engaged. It’d also potentially help show the team that doing things like that and just engaging with fans makes for a more positive fan base.

Other Thoughts

The Winterhawks hold a fan fest on the last day of their Neely Cup. The Neely Cup is a tournament held in August with players the team has signed. It’s named this because of former star player Cam Neely. They whittle down the roster to the players they want come the start of the season in September. Fans are able to watch the games, interact with other fans and get a look at players they could see in the upcoming season. There are inflatables outside the venue like those that are inside the arena on New Year’s Eve where fans can compete against players. Fans can get autographs and meet any staff members that might be hanging around.

The team needs to work on interacting more with fans during these times. The fan fest would be an ideal time to hold an in-person fan forum to hear what fans think of the game-day experience and what they might like to see in the future. They could also get input on appearances in the community and what they’re doing well and anything they could improve on. It can’t be enforced enough that the people who manage game-day operations need to be listening to the fans and brainstorming new ideas.

More Ice and Radio Broadcasts

Fan fest is also an ideal time for the community to come together and get the message across that the metro area needs more ice rinks. I’ve read comments from some people saying they’ve had to drive a long ways just to get ice time. If the team truly cared about growing the sport, their youth program, strengthening their fan base, and possibly even growing it, they’d make a better effort to establish more ice in the area. Parks and Rec departments, city leaders, and those who have power need to step up and work with the team to establish more ice for everyone.

Something else that could help grow the fan base and was a topic of complaint was the team pulling broadcasts from the radio and only streaming from their website and app. The team has a great play-by-play voice in Nick Marek who is passionate about the sport and has great experience to show for it. He engages with fans and chats with those interested in the same or similar profession. Some of us who go to games like to listen to the post-game show on the way home, but can’t since it’s not on the radio. Putting games back on the radio could also help to possibly grow the fan base. Somebody might be flipping through radio stations or even just decide to give hockey a shot one night and listen to the game.

What Have We Learned?

The Winterhawks have great on-ice success with multiple conference and even league titles, but off ice it’s another story. Fan engagement leads to negativity among fans with constant complaints in fan groups. Long lines lead to some people missing the beginning of the game. The game-night experience is good, but it could be great. They need to be engaging with fans more and listening to those who spend their hard-earned money to attend games. They could be doing more when it comes to communication and viewing parties. People show up at locations listed only to find the game isn’t on or that there aren’t any other fans or anybody from the team there.