I love to see hockey thrive in different places. There are people who claim only cold-weather climates should host franchises, but the amount of elite prospects coming out of California these days – not to mention Texas, Florida and even Georgia – proves how beneficial a footprint can be in the long run.
Of course, in some cases these start-ups don’t quite work out; the fan base doesn’t grow enough, the team never gets good enough to give them a reason to, and so on. Here, change and movement may be necessary. And that’s when we return to increase the amount of Canadian teams or tap an underserved market I think is in the perfect position to thrive.
That city is Seattle.
Winners of the 1917 Stanley Cup, when the local Metropolitans defeated the Montreal Canadiens, Seattle is a major sports town that all of a sudden has a huge void in its winter schedule.
With the NBA’s Sonics stolen from them by an Oklahoma cowboy, Seattle has a serviceable venue in KeyArena that will have a lot of open dates in the next few years.
Coincidentally (and unfortunate timing-wise for urban hockey fans), the Western League’s Seattle Thunderbirds have made the move to Kent, located just a half-hour south of the city, but automatically less convenient than a streetcar ride.
Now, the Thunderbirds’ move was predicated on team finances and their lease at KeyArena, but it also made sense from a demographic standpoint. Kent may be much smaller population-wise than Seattle, but it is very family-oriented, dovetailing nicely with the needs of a junior hockey team.
Plus, junior players become the stars of the town, whereas in the downtown core, they would still have to battle the NFL’s Seahawks for part of the time and University of Washington basketball after that.
Anytime I thought about NHL hockey in Seattle, my first concern was the welfare of the Thunderbirds. Seems like the latter took care of that already.
And even though the T-Birds had money problems downtown, the economics of an NHL team are much more powerful. Corporate support, which, among other things, has hamstrung a Winnipeg return for years, would seemingly not be a problem. Not only were the Sonics formerly owned by Starbucks Coffee magnate Howard Schultz, but there seem to be more than a few local companies who know how to make money off computers in the area.
The gash left in the city from the loss of their basketball franchise is palpable – when walking the streets of any other major American metropolis, you’ll see gear from the local squad on scores of locals. In Seattle last week on vacation, I don’t think I saw one piece of Sonics merchandise anywhere.
Bringing an NHL team to a state with four major junior hockey teams, a ready-to-go arena and the geographic proximity to Vancouver for an automatic rivalry (with the accompanying guaranteed sell-outs) just seems to make too much sense.
Much more than, say, Las Vegas, which hasn’t been helped by the American economic crisis and whose casinos wouldn’t have any reason to support 18,000 people not gambling for three hours on a Saturday night. And much more than Kansas City, whose only rationale seems to be “we built a shiny new arena and somebody has to play there, though we don’t care who.”
Another stop on the Pacific Northwest leg of my vacation was Portland, Ore. Home of the WHL’s Winter Hawks, I took in the team’s second game of the year, a 2-1 victory over the Kelowna Rockets.
Now, granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and the team is not expected to be a contender this season, so the crowd was sparse. Having said that, they were still raucous when it mattered and indicated how good times can be in Portland when the Hawks are hot.
But the thing that really intrigued me was the variance in the crowd. Portland is my kind of town to begin with – hipsters, crust punks and post-punks are everywhere – but all different kinds of folk support the Hawks. You’ll just as easily find couples with full-sleeve tattoos or twenty-somethings with stretched ear plugs at games as you’ll see straight-laced families or die-hards in third jerseys who look like they’ve been going to games for decades.
When people say hockey will always be a niche sport, I think about the diverse crowd in Portland, not to mention those prospects coming down the pipeline from Dallas or El Segundo. Compelling sport needs no boundaries in North America and with the excitement the game is generating on the ice recently, there’s no reason it will.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.