The SHL selected Portland Bluebacks G Jesse Clarkson as its Player of the Week. The Bluebacks went undefeated this week, and Clarkson’s goaltending was a key element of their winning formula. For the week, Clarkson went 3-0-0 with a 1.00 GAA and a .972 save percentage.
On Sunday, in front of the delighted crowd at Willamette River Arena, Clarkson stopped 35 shots in a 7-1 thrashing of Kansas City. On Tuesday, in the back end of the home-and-home, Clarkson made 41 saves as the Bluebacks stopped the Smoke by a 4-2 margin. Then on Thursday, Clarkson produced a 31-save shutout to muzzle Michigan in a 3-0 victory.
For the season, Clarkson leads the league with 19 victories. His 2.49 GAA ranks him fifth among SHL goaltenders, while his .926 save percentage is tied for second.
“This is why we wanted Jesse on our team,” said Portland coach Harold Engellund.
Michigan Gray Wolves radio announcer Blackie Sprowl puts plenty of color in his color commentary. He has earned a rabid following among Michigan fans, but his blatant homerism and his penchant for jibes at opposing teams and cities have made him considerably less popular elsewhere.
This week, Sprowl made himself a new group of enemies in the SHL’s newest city. The Wolves hosted the Portland Bluebacks at Cadillac Place on Thursday. and Sprowl shared his impressions of the city in a joking rant that inspired condemnation and calls for an apology.
The remarks occurred between periods, as Sprowl was doing a segment with play-by-play man Philip Shelton. Shelton remarked in passing that the had never visited Portland prior to this year, and this set Sprowl off.
“This was my first time there too,” the color man remarked. “And I have to tell you, landing in that city is like landing on another planet.”
“What do you mean by that?” said Shelton suspiciously, already sensing where it was heading.
“Well, for one thing, just try finding a normal meal there,” said Sprowl. “I went out one night, just trying to get a hamburger. And they give me this slab of tofu between blocks of ramen noodles, with… I don’t know, bean sprouts and kale all over it. Then the next morning, I went out to find a café that served bacon and eggs, and all I could find was avocado toast on sprouted-grain bread and espresso-caffe-mocha-lattiatos, or whatever.”
“There are actually a lot of good restaurants in Portland,” Shelton interjected.
“I think the Bluebacks are gonna starve to death before the season’s over, because there’s no real food in that town,” Sprowl continued. “You can’t keep hockey players fed on tofu and avocado toast.”
“Here we go,” said Shelton. “This is going to be like the Anchorage thing all over again. People will be throwing tofu in the arena. Fans, please don’t do that.”
“Also, there aren’t any normal people living there,” Sprowl went on. “Walk down the street, and everybody’s got nose rings and Birkenstocks and beards. The men and women all have beards. Or maybe it’s just men who look like women.”
“We’re going to hear about this,” warned Shelton. “We’re going to get emails.”
“And the tattoos!” Sprowl exclaimed. “What’s with all the tattoos? When I was growing up, it was just sailors and truckers and carny people who had tattoos. But everyone there has them!”
“’Carny people?’” said Shelton quizzically.
“I don’t think they let you move into Portland unless you have a tattoo. It’s a freak show in the streets. In the café I went to, the waitress was a real pretty girl, except for the art show on her arms. It’s like spray-painting graffiti on the Mona Lisa.”
Shelton at this point began a mock disclaimer: “Mr. Sprowl’s views are solely his own, and do not reflect those of the Michigan Gray Wolves or this station.”
Ignoring Shelton, Sprowl concluded: “Apart from being a city full of freaks who eat hippie rabbit chow, Portland’s not bad. And it’s a way shorter flight than Anchorage, so that’s a plus.”
As Shelton anticipated, Sprowl’s comments drew quick condemnation. Leading the way was Bluebacks owner Jared Carmichael, who stood up for his home city. “Blackie Sprowl’s remarks are full of the lazy, stereotypical thinking that too many Americans have about Portland,” said Carmichael. “Granted, I have a beard, I wear Birkenstocks, and I have tattoos. No nose ring, though, so I’m only three-for-four on his stereotype checklist. We may seem ‘weird’ to Sprowl, but we’re proud of it. I’d take our vibrant, artistic, diverse, beautiful, and weird city any day over the regressive, white-bread, 1950s fantasy world of his imagination.”
Portland coach Harold Engellund took a different tack, but expressed similar sentiments. “I’m sure not about to go get a tattoo or a nose ring myself,” Engellund said. “That’s not my style. And a lot of the young folks around Portland don’t look like me or dress like me. But who cares? And why should the young folks care what Blackie or I think? America’s a free country, and that means the freedom to be different. All this talk about who’s ‘real’ and who’s a ‘freak’ is tearing us apart, and I don’t want to hear it.”
Star Bluebacks RW Vince Mango, meanwhile, took a different tack. Mango, a noted foodie, offered to take Sprowl on a food tour of the city. “If he wants hamburgers or bacon and eggs, I can show him where to find those,” said Mango. “But if he’s up for opening his mind a little, I can show him what an amazing food city this is, and how much exciting stuff there is out there. If he can look beyond the tattoos and the one-liners about avocado toast, I can change his life.”
The Wolves issued a statement that said they were “disappointed in Mr. Sprowl’s remarks” and would consider disciplinary action.
The Portland Bluebacks cruised into the All-Star break with the SHL’s best overall record and a comfortable lead in the West. The Bluebacks’ lead over the second-place Saskatchewan Shockers was larger than Saskatchewan’s lead over last-place Kansas City. Portland’s 119 goals was the second-highest total in the league, and their GAA had recovered from a dismal start to the middle of the pack.
In short, it was nothing but good news in Stumptown. Their primary concern was whether the break would disrupt the team’s momentum.
“When you’re playing as well as we are, you don’t really want a break,” said Bluebacks coach Harold Engellund. “We’re in a good rhythm right now, and we just want to keep rolling.”
Turns out they needn’t have worried. Portland came out of the break with an undefeated week, running their winning streak to six games. They’re now 14 points ahead of Saskatchewan, their closest competitor. They’ve won 9 of their last 11 games and 13 of their last 17. In short, it appears that the only race in the West might be for the second playoff spot.
“How do you like us now?” crowed Bluebacks RW Vince Mango. “We’re playing awesome hockey, and no one’s been able to slow us down so far. I’d say our team is looking Vandy-worthy.”
Portland’s success has been built on a powerful, high-scoring offense. During their recent 13-3-1 run, they’ve averaged a league-leading 4.25 goals per game. Mango and LW Rod “Money” Argent, who have scored 19 goals apiece this season, are among the league leaders in that category.
“Offensively, we’re in perfect sync,” said Argent. “Every pass is tape-to-tape, and we’ve got an intuitive sense of where everyone’s going to be on the ice at any given moment. Everything’s clicking just like it should be.”
The Bluebacks have been boosted by the raucous sellout crowds at Willamette River Arena; they’ve been nearly unbeatable at home, going 13-2-2 this season. But they’ve also been dangerous away from home; 9 of their last 10 games have been on the road, and they’ve won eight of those.
“Being on the road so much lately, and with the All-Star break in the middle, it definitely threatened to disrupt our momentum,” said Engellund. “But we haven’t missed a beat. The boys have really stepped up and met the challenge.”
Portland has also benefitted from down years by the West’s traditional powers. The Anchorage Igloos, the defending division champ and four-time SHL Finalist, are currently mired in an 0-7-2 slump; if the season ended today, they would miss the playoffs. The Michigan Gray Wolves, meanwhile, have been below .500 for most of the season, and head coach Ron Wrightresigned at the break.
With Anchorage and Michigan underperforming, the Bluebacks’ closest competitor is the plucky Shockers. However, Saskatchewan is battling the injury bug; both D Chris Oflyng – one of the team’s leading scorers – and C Cyril Perignon went down with serious injuries in the week before the All-Star Game.
At least in the short term, the Bluebacks’ biggest threat may be complacency. But Engellund vows that he will not let the team take its foot off the gas.
“We know that we haven’t won anything yet,”said the coach. “And if I sense that the voys are slacking off, I’ll come down on them pretty hard. But I don’t expect that it’s going to be an issue; we’ve got a professional group and they’ll hold each other accountable.”
Mango, meanwhile, is projecting his trademark confidence. “We’re showing everyone that we’re the team to beat,” the winger told reporters. “If you want to take us out, you’ll have to come catch us first.”
SHLD: The last time we talked, you were with Washington, and it looked like you might be there for your whole career. But then last year, you were traded to Hamilton just in time to win the Vandy.
EC: Man, what a thrill! We never quite got over that hump in DC, and it felt awesome to get to the mountaintop.
SHLD: Then, in the offseason, you left the Pistols and signed with Portland. How did you choose to sign there?
EC: Well, it was clear that Hamilton didn’t have the cap room to keep me. My agent explored the possibilities with them, but there just wasn’t a fit. So I went to free agency, and Portland went after me very aggressively. I really liked the construction of the roster, the organization as a whole, and I went for it.
SHLD: And now the Bluebacks have the league’s best record, just ahead of your former team.
EC: Yeah, wouldn’t that be wild? Like being at a party with your new girlfriend and running into your ex. Hopefully not as awkward.
SHLD: Any surprises with the Bluebacks so far?
EC: I’d say that the biggest surprise for me has to be Vince [Mango]. He has this reputation as a one-dimensional, selfish glory hog. But he’s not like that at all. He’s really sacrificing his chances to help the team succeed. He doesn’t feel the need to be the focal point of the offense; he does whatever it takes to help us win.
SHLD: What do you think you need to do in the second half to stay on top?
EC: Just keep playing our game. We know we’re in a tough division, so we can’t put it on cruise control. We’ll keep the offense clicking, play smart in our own end, and keep the wins coming.
SHLD: Sounds pretty confident!
EC: Why not be confident? I’ve got confidence in the guys in our locker room, the coaching staff, and everybody.
SHLD: We’ve heard reports of the sellout crowds there in Portland. Do you find the crowds help you?
EC: Oh, no question about it. We had some great crowds in DC, and in Hamilton too. But the noise here is on another level. It can be deafening. And it gives you the boost, especially in the third period when your energy starts to sag.
SHLD: One final question, one we’ve wanted to ask for years: What’s with your hair?
EC: What, you don’t like the fork-in-an-electric-socket look? I think it looks cool. I kind of wish I’d come up in the era when hockey players didn’t wear helmets, because I hate the way it gets matted down when I play.
SHLD: Okay, fair enough! Thanks for your time, and good luck the rest of the season!
EC: I’m gonna tell the guys you don’t like my hair.
As mentioned in this space last week, the Anchorage Igloos’ revival from a dismal start has attracted attention around the league and marked the squad from the far north as a top Vandy contender. The Igloos’ win streak reached ten games before they fell to Hershey on Saturday.
While Anchorage’s run has been the #1 topic of discussion in SHL locker rooms, another Western team has quietly reeled off some wins of their own, and currently sit in front of the Igloos and everyone else atop the West: the Portland Bluebacks.
Last season, playing as the Seattle Sailors, the team made its first trip to the postseason, only to be quickly swept by the Igloos. Since the team had never even finished above .500 before, some regression to the mean seemed possible. It was also unclear how the move to the Rose City would affect the team.
But GM Taylor Teichman made several bold moves in the offseason to prepare the Bluebacks for another season of contention. They came out of nowhere to win the bidding war for C Eddie Costello, strengthening a position where they were already solid. And even though goalie Rocky Goldmire was coming off a career-best performance, Teichman dealt him to Kansas City and signed veteran Jesse Clarkson.
The moves have made the Bluebacks a more balanced and dangerous club. In previous years, the team’s fortunes have rested on the stick of their telegenic and controversial star, RW Vince Mango. This year, however, Mango doesn’t lead the team in points; Costello does, with 24. (Mango’s 9 goals aren’t even the most on the team; LW Rod “Money” Argent has 10.)
“I’m not in the position where I have to be the hero all the time, and that’s great,” said Mango to reporters this week. “We’ve got lots of ways to beat you now.”
On the opposite end, Clarkson has rebounded from a slow start to post his usual strong numbers: 10-3-2, 2.76 GAA, .916 save percentage. The veteran netminder is rarely considered among the SHL’s elite, but he has been consistent year in and year out. Not only is Clarkson playing in front of perhaps the best team of his career, but he’s also playing close to home for the first time; he’s a native of Castle Rock, Washington, about an hour north of Portland on I-5.
“It’s great being able to play in front of my family and friends,” said Clarkson. “The only trouble is, the team is so popular I can hardly get tickets!”
Clarkson’s not kidding: the games at Willamette River Arena have all been sellouts so far. The energy of the crowds has clearly fueled the team; they have a sterling 9-2-1 record on home ice. “The energy in this building is the best in the league,” said Mango. “When it’s the third period and behind by one and we’re going on the power play, the crowd feels like it’s right on top of you. It’s intimidating as hell, and it’s a great weapon for us.”
As brilliant as the Bluebacks have been so far, nothing is decided yet. Anchorage remains a threat, and the Saskatchewan Shockers loom not far behind them both. But for those who thought that last year’s success was a flash in the pan, the message is clear: think again.
“It’s been a long road to get this far, long and bumpy,” said coach Harold Engellund. “But we’re for real now, and the rest of the league had better get used to it. We’re not going anywhere.”
Portland Bluebacks star Vince Mango, whose outspoken nature has sparked controversy on more than one occasion, did it again this week. On the eve of a matchup against the Anchorage Igloos, Mango told a reporter that he would rather quit hockey than play in Anchorage.
Mango made this remark during an interview for a profile that ran in a Portand newspaper last Friday. The reporter asked Mango about his favorite and least favorite SHL road cities. The winger cited New York as his favorite. “All that action, all that energy, all the great restaurants,” said Mango, who is a noted foodie. “The Big Apple’s the greatest city in the world! From a nightlife perspective, you can’t beat it.”
Mango then discussed his least favorite places. “Most guys would probably say Rapid City [home of the Dakota Jackalopes] ‘cause it’s so small,” said Mango, “but I actually kind of like it. Mount Rushmore and that big hill with all the dino statues on it [Dinosaur Park]. If you’ve got an off-day, maybe take a trip out to Wall Drug and ride the jackalope. That place is totally made for Instagram!
“No, the place I can’t stand is Anchorage,” Mango continued. “I’m a Florida boy, and I don’t like the cold, and that place is cold as hell. Have you been there in the winter? You step out of the airport and, like, your lungs freeze. There’s nothing to do except, like, eat whale blubber and find stuff to build a fire with. There’s like two hours of daylight, and that’s if you’re lucky and the sun isn’t behind a cloud. I’d probably like it okay if I was a penguin, but I’m not.”
In an act of unfortunate timing, the profile ran a couple days before the Bluebacks traveled to Arctic Circle Arena to face the Igloos, who were seeking their first win of the season. Predictably, Anchorage’s players were less than impressed.
“I love it here,” said LW Jerry Koons. “The cold takes a little getting used to, but it’s a warm and friendly city once you get to know it. The people are awesome, and there’s plenty to do. Of course, I’m more into hiking and skiing than I am into reality TV, which seems to be Vince’s thing.”
“I’m not sure why Vince wouldn’t want to play for a team that’s gone to four Finals and won two Vandys,” added C Jake Frost. “I think that says more about him than it does about Anchorage.”
When Mango’s name was announced during introductions, the fans booed and littered the ice with toy penguins. In response, the Portland star waved and smiled. During the game, the fans booed every time Mango touched the puck.
The Igloos were happy to make Mango eat his words, scoring five goals in the first period to chase goalie Jesse Clarkson and cruising to an 8-1 rout.
Mango proclaimed himself amused by the response. “They’re sticking up for their town, and that’s cool,” said the winger. “If this starts some beef between us and them, nothing wrong with that. Rivalries mean ratings, and I’m all about the ratings.”
On Sunday, the Portland Bluebacks made their eagerly-awaited debut at Willamette River Arena. The former Seattle Sailors have spent the last several months in their new hometown, meeting the fans and building up excitement for hockey in the Rose City. Since the team held their uniform unveiling at the beginning of December, anticipation has reached a fever pitch.
“It feels like we’re a part of the city already,” said RW Vince Mango. “But until we actually hit the ice, it’s not going to feel 100% real.”
The matchup for the Bluebacks’ first game was a favorable one, as they faced the rebuilding Dakota Jackalopes. A sellout crowd came hungry for victory. And the Bluebacks were able to send their fans home happy, dispatching the Jackalopes by a 3-2 score.
“We really wanted to get this first one at home,” said Bluebacks coach Harold Engellund. “It was a little closer than we wanted, but we’ll take it.”
It took all of 33 seconds for Portland to get on the board for the first time. Bluebacks D Stan Gallagher picked off a Dakota pass in the neutral zone and fed RW Philippe Durien, who ripped a shot past the blocker of Jackalopes goalie Lorne Mollenkamp. The team’s goal song, “Smoke It” by the Dandy Warhols, blared as the fans roared their approval.
Less than four minutes later, the Bluebacks got their first power play, as Jackalopes D Kirby Hanlon was sent off for elbowing. On the ensuing power play, Mango deked the defense by faking a slapper, then fed D Benny Lambert, who found the back of the net, triggering another round of the Dandy Warhols.
Dakota cut the margin in half before the opening period ended, however, and they refused to let the Bluebacks put the game away. Although Portland dominated the puck, outshooting Dakota 50-25, Mollenkamp made a number of dazzling saves to keep his team from falling too far behind. Things got a bit too close for comfort at the end, when RW Elliott Pepper took a double-minor with two and a half minutes remaining and the Bluebacks up by only a single goal. But the penalty kill came through, and the home team came away with the victory.
“The energy in the arena was electric,” said Mango, who had an assist in the game. “It was one big party. The fans were really vibing with us, and it was awesome. I hope we can keep that energy for the rest of the year.”