By Eric Fetters HBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — When a sold-out crowd wildly cheered the Everett Silvertips hockey team as it took to the ice for its first-ever home game in Comcast Arena in October 2003, it felt like the culmination of a civic dream.
But that first game actually was just the beginning. Amid the excitement over the team and the arena, which provided a new focal point for downtown Everett, few of the 8,000-plus fans who witnessed the team’s first home victory pondered what the future would bring.
As the Silvertips prepare to drop the puck on their 10th anniversary season, it’s easy to forget that many people had doubts a decade ago as to why Canadian businessman Bill Yuill would divest his ownership of the Seattle Thunderbirds in order to establish a new team here.
“He knew the market and saw something no one else had seen,” said Kim Bedier, general manager of Comcast Arena at Everett. “The Silvertips created a hockey culture here and just really became a part of the fabric of the community.”
The team’s unprecedented winning ways on the ice that debut season galvanized and immediately expanded the fan base, but the Silvertips’ long-term organizational success can’t be credited solely to luck. From day one, Yuill hired front-office managers who would start the franchise on the right foot, said Zoran Rajcic, the Silvertips’ assistant general manager and executive vice president. He leads the team’s business operation.
“We planned to be as successful as we could on the ice, to be very successful off the ice on the business side and to really have something this community could feel proud of,” said Rajcic, who joined the front office when the franchise was established in 2002. “First and foremost, our goal is to be a good business for the city of Everett and this region — Snohomish County and the counties adjoining — and, secondarily to that, to make sure our team is competitive enough that people will want to come and watch.”
He admits that, as with any new sports team, there was uncertainty when it launched in Everett. From the beginning, the team established a 10-year business plan and focused on the long term, he said. Entering the last year of that business plan, the franchise has an enviable track record, said Garry Davidson, who took over as the Silvertips general manager in February and has served as a coach, general manager and team owner during more than 30 years in junior hockey.
“When you look at the Silvertips, you know you have stable and quality ownership,” Davidson said. “And they’ve certainly come in and done a great job from the business perspective. Attendance is always solid, along with corporate support, and even the team store, they’ve done a really terrific job.”
In eight of its nine seasons, the Silvertips’ average home game attendance has been among the top five in the 22-team Western Hockey League, averaging more than 5,900 fans per game. That totals more than 2.1 million fans over nine seasons. Last season, when home attendance dipped below 200,000 for the first time, the Silvertips’ attendance still ranked eighth among WHL teams, said Travis Huntington, the team’s director of broadcasting and public relations.
In comparison, average attendance for the Seattle Thunderbirds, which moved to a new arena in Kent three years ago, hasn’t exceeded 4,500 in the past nine years, according to WHL statistics.
Rajcic attributes the Silvertips’ relative stable attendance to fan loyalty and, in part, to the front office’s decision not to nudge season ticket prices higher over the years.
“We’ve hit the mark with the fan base,” he said. “We haven’t chipped away at the base by saying we’re going to increase our prices. We want to make sure we maintain our affordability on the ticket side of things.”
The regular price for a Silvertips’ single-game ticket starts at $14. A family of four can enter a Silvertips game for $50 to $60 — about the cost of one average NHL ticket — before promotions and coupons that lower the price.
While most Silvertips fans live within 15 miles of downtown Everett, the team draws fans between King County and the Canadian border, Rajcic said. “We get asked lots of times, ‘Define your fan base,’ and it’s funny because you’ll walk into the arena and see families come in the door, groups of men coming in and groups of women on girls’ night out.”
That wide audience helps the front-office staff make its case to sponsors, and Rajcic said support from Snohomish County’s business community has remained strong over the years.
“I think we’ve proven that we are an avenue for people to gain visibility through association with our team,” he said. “Yes, the economic climate in the region has changed somewhat, but we’re still finding that support on all levels has maintained.”
While local hockey fans and sponsors obviously have a large stake in the Silvertips’ success, the team has a wider impact as well. For example, as the prime tenant of publicly owned Comcast Arena, the Silvertips have been vital to the facility’s financial performance since it opened.
Bedier said the team’s stable attendance has helped the arena make its obligations, including bond payments, and even post income in every year except 2009, according to annual reports compiled by the Everett Public Facilities District Board, which governs the arena. Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Comcast-Spectacor, has run the facility under contract since its opening.
The team’s ability to draw fans has attracted other teams to Everett, Bedier said. The most notable is the Washington Stealth, a National Lacrosse League team, which has played three seasons in the arena after relocating from San Jose, Calif., and recently announced an agreement to play in Everett through 2017.
Bedier also gives the Silvertips credit for helping to develop local hockey programs and encouraging young people to try playing on ice. Those amateur hockey teams have helped to support the arena’s public ice skating rink, which annually draws more than 50,000 users. According to the arena’s last annual report, 57 percent of the Comcast Community Ice Rink’s revenue comes from Everett Youth Hockey and contracts with other youth and adult hockey leagues.
“That wouldn’t have happened without the Silvertips,” Bedier said.
On the eve of their 10th anniversary season, the Silvertips arguably are in uncharted waters. Davidson’s entering his first full season at the helm of the team’s hockey operation and is only the second general manager in team history, succeeding Doug Soetaert. Head coach Mark Ferner enters his second season after a difficult 2011-12, though the team still managed to make the playoffs for the ninth straight year.
Rajcic said that despite the high-profile changes at the top over the past year, Silvertips fans shouldn’t worry about a shift in direction after regular-season play starts Sept. 22.
“As with any business, things change. On the hockey side, there’s always going to be some transition there, but the overall stability of the organization has been very positive,” Rajcic said. “In the entire operation, from top to bottom, there’s still staff members that have been here from day one.”