WHL's Winterhawks leave their mark on hardcore fans in Portland

WHL's Winterhawks leave their mark on hardcore fans in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. — Paul and John Eddy sit across from each other at the family business they helped build together in 1992 after moving to Portland from the Bay Area in California.

John is Paul’s uncle and like many close relatives, the verbal sparring is good-natured and constant. They go back and forth over everything from the heat in the shop, the merits of sushi, former employees, and of course the big debate – hockey.

Welcome to Family Tradition Tattoos.

Together, both artists have been tattooing the Portland Winterhawks, their mothers, fathers, siblings and girlfriends – for free – since 2007. They are also long-time, diehard fans of the Western Hockey League franchise.

Their small business is located in the city’s northeast end about 20 minutes from downtown, near a 7-Eleven, a smoke shop, past one of Portland’s many strip joints and far from all the hipster haunts and fancy artisanal fare.

It’s an old school shop full of Winterhawks memorabilia – pictures, pennants and autographed sticks. John no longer tattoos, but still owns and runs the shop. His grandfather, C.J. “Pops” Eddy, was a well-known tattoo artist during World War II in San Francisco and the family tradition was passed down.

Over the years the Eddys have inked everyone: police officers, gangbangers, firefighters, NBA stars, bikers, housewives and, of course, hockey players.

Look up and you’ll see sticks signed by a who’s who of former Winterhawks: Nino Niederreiter, Mac Carruth, Troy Rutkowski, Ian Curtis, and Sven Bartschi – whose brother and mother were tattooed at the shop. The work varies from the simple and small to large, intricate pieces. It took Paul a full season to finish work that covered the entire back of defenceman Cody Castro.

The shop only has one pre-requisite for players: You have to be 18 or older.

“There was only ever one player that wanted something super-stupid and we refused to do it,” says Paul, flipping through one stencil binder with various combinations of skulls, daggers and guns, alongside clowns and Mickey Mouse.

“People pick amazingly stupid things.”

How did you convince him it was a bad idea?

“I just said ‘No! I’m not doing it!’ Your mom is not going to appreciate me putting some dumb (stuff) on you.”

One of the stories that receives the biggest laugh is the time former Portland forward Matt Schmermund came in to get his first tattoo.

“If there was a scale from one to 10 for the highest pain tolerance, Schmermund was a negative-four,” says Paul, shaking his head. “The first time he came in for one he passed out. It was on his upper back and there’s a lot of meat there. That’s not even a bad area.”

“Then he came in for another one, passed out and then puked all over the place,” adds John.

The Internet is rife with memes dedicated to the supposed toughness of the hockey player, but in the pair’s work experience - which runs multiple decades - when it comes to getting tattoos, not all are made with the same mettle.

“They’re tough in hockey terms,” says Paul. “But let me stab you in the back in South Philly. It all depends where you get them and everybody’s been on this rib-cage kick lately and that’s top three (for pain) – stomach, rib cage, head. That’s ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ ”

Both Paul and John are lively characters: heavily tattooed, friendly and eager to talk about their passions – tattooing, fishing and the Winterhawks. As season ticket holders they’ve seen it all, including the lean years where the team was terrible, winning 28 games over a span of two seasons.

Mike Johnston, the head coach and general manager who helped turn the franchise around in 2008, is a revered figure at the shop.

“You will not find anyone better than MJ,” says John. “He saved this team.”

Yes, I worship at the church of Mike Johnston,” adds Paul, nodding in affirmation.

That passion is evident at the rink, too. Portland fans are loud and proud to the point where opposing teams take notice. Edmonton Oil Kings star Curtis Lazar shares advice for a reporter going to their first Winterhawks game.

“I hope you have some earplugs with you,” says the smiling 19-year-old.

For the opening two games of the Western Hockey League final between Edmonton and Portland, the Moda Center was deafening as advertised. Fans decked out in their Winterhawks finery erupted in cheers the moment their team took the ice. Each Portland goal resulted in choreographed bedlam.

In Game 1, it was Keegan Iverson who put Portland out in front under three minutes into the game. That goal brought the sold-out crowd of 10,947 fans to their feet, waving their fists in unison, chanting their rally cry: “Fight! Fight! Fight!” all in perfect synch with the AC/DC song T.N.T.

“It’s pretty crazy,” says Edmonton winger Mitch Moroz, whose team has met Portland now in three straight WHL championship series. “It’s unbelievable for junior hockey. … You get in here and they cheer about everything – they cheer about off-side calls and icings – and it’s just nuts. It’s a place where you really have to control your emotions.”

Most of the Oil Kings have been here before and many of them admit to being impressed by the passionate fans here in Portland. Edmonton overage defenceman Cody Corbett still remembers his first playoff game in Portland in 2012, when Bartschi scored the first goal of the game.

“We all kind of looked up and put out tails between our legs,” recalls Corbett. “We just stood there and looked at everybody yelling T.N.T. at us and we were just like, ‘Wow. This is awesome.’ ”

“If you want to talk, you’re going to have to wait 30 seconds until after they drop the puck for you to say anything or else you’re not going to hear them.”

There’s no denying Winterhawks fans are intense. In Portland, where there is a prominent tattoo culture, it’s not uncommon to meet fans with the team’s secondary logo – the letter P between two crossed tomahawks – inked on skin.

Courtney Riler has a small tattoo on the nape of her neck. Chad Balcom – who recently started “Pucklandia” an unofficial Winterhawks podcast – has the same, larger design on his upper arm. Paul has it on one side of his neck along with the official chief’s head logo (think the Chicago Blackhawks crest) on the opposite side. He also had former defenceman Scott Gabriel, the shop’s first and favourite hockey client, tattoo his autograph on his torso.

In terms of junior hockey, hardcore doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Balcom decided to get his tattoo after seeing Paul regularly at games back when the Winterhawks were struggling.

“We were drawing 1,500 fans a night, so you got to recognize regulars on the concourse pretty quickly,” he says.

At that point he decided that if the team made it out of the first round of the playoffs in 2010 he’d get the Portland tattoo – even though he’s originally from Nebraska.

Ty Rattie’s first ever playoff goal in overtime of Game 7 to advance the Winterhawks past the Spokane Chiefs into the second round, sealed the deal.

“(It was) the very second that this franchise turned the corner,” says Balcom.

If the Winterhawks win the WHL championship again, or potentially a Memorial Cup, he says he’s “90 percent” committed to some sort of Cup tattoo to commemorate their success.

For Riler, her Winterhawks tattoo represents treasured memories from childhood. She started going to games as a toddler with her family and for one anniversary back in the 1980s, her father gifted her mother with a Winterhawks jersey, now considered vintage. Her design includes small stitches to look like the original sewn patch from her mom’s sweater.

“It definitely reminds me of home,” says Riler. “I’ve just come to love hockey in general, but this is where it all started – here in Portland – that’s why I chose to get the ‘P.’ If you get the Hawk head, some people will think of the Chicago Blackhawks. But with this, specifically, it’s all about Portland. I’ve always loved this city.

“Relationships come and go, but the Winterhawks are with me forever.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: sunaya@yahoo-inc.com | Twitter @Sunayas