VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Like all of Canada, hockey here in the lower mainland has a long and rich history.
The Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL in 1970. That was six years before the Seahawks and seven before the Mariners began playing in Seattle.
But now the Emerald City and its surrounding areas are eagerly anticipating joining Vancouver in adding to the NHL flavor of the Pacific Northwest. The Oak View Group, the investors looking to bring a team to Seattle, reportedly received 25,000 season-ticket commitments in two hours during last Thursday’s ticket drive before capping the list at 33,000 and putting additional requests on a waitlist.
Even current NHL players have taken notice.
“We were talking about it the other day in (the dressing room) and it sounds like it went pretty well,” said Brandon Sutter, a Vancouver Canucks center and cousin of Everett Silvertips center Riley Sutter. “I think the NHL has got it figured out with expansion of where to go. I think with the success they’ve had with Vegas this year I think they’ve learned a few things and we’ll see what happens down the road.”
The Las Vegas season-ticket drive in 2015 saw 5,000 commitments within the first two days and 9,000 within a month before it was ultimately capped at 16,000. The Golden Knights lead the Pacific Division standings and are second in the Western Conference standings.
The WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds and Silvertips have long enjoyed niche popularity in the Puget Sound region. Last season both teams averaged about 4,800 fans per game. But the groundswell of support for the NHL in Seattle could lift the game into the mainstream.
“I think it’s going to be great — I think it’s going to be an easy transition (for fans),” said New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal, the former Thunderbird who is the front-runner for the Calder Trophy awarded to the NHL’s rookie of the year. “We’ve seen it in Vegas. But I think with Vegas the atmosphere at the game was unreal. It was so fun and that kind of stuff. So I think if they can really be on top of their social media and atmosphere that will help tons too.”
Barzal was in town Monday and had two assists as the Islanders fell 4-3 to Sutter’s Canucks in overtime. It was the first time the Coquitlam-born Barzal played an NHL game in what is essentially his hometown, and the assembled media and fans were thick before, during and after the contest.
While Barzal starred at Kent’s ShoWare Center, his New York teammate and fellow Thunderbirds alumnus Thomas Hickey hails from the KeyArena era of T-birds hockey. The potential NHL team would play at a renovated KeyArena tentatively beginning in 2020.
“(Seeing) how well soccer has done in Seattle, and baseball and football, those are people that are willing to get behind it,” Hickey said. “I’d imagine it would be a team for the Pacific Northwest — more people than just Seattle would get on board with it. It makes sense to me and I hope it works out.”
Silvertips fans still have a chance to potentially see former Everett forward Jujhar Khaira when Edmonton visits Rogers Arena on March 29. The Montreal Canadiens made their lone trip west in December while former Tips blueliner Noah Juulsen was still with the AHL’s Laval Rocket. The Abbotsford-born Juulsen debuted with Montreal last month.
Current Silvertips Carter Hart (Philadelphia), Garrett Pilon (Washington) and Ondrej Vala (Dallas) all have signed NHL contracts and figure to be in the professional ranks next year. There’s a chance any or all of them could be at the NHL level by the time the league potentially gets to Seattle in 2020.
“I think the Seattle area is less familiar with the game of hockey than areas like (Philadelphia), but Seattle is a sports city,” Hart said. “If you look at the Seahawks, the fanbase they have is probably one of the best NFL fanbases in the league. I have a feeling that kind of support is going to transfer over to the NHL team.”
The significant difference in price points between the junior and professional hockey levels as well as the increased visibility the NHL would bring to the sport suggests this will be a good thing for the local junior teams in the long run.
“I think it helps grow the game,” Tips head coach Dennis Williams said. “It will, I think, get more people involved in understanding what the NHL is all about, what hockey is all about. … That will bring a lot of positives to all the junior markets, the youth programs like the Everett Junior Silvertips and everything, because again I think we’re still in a little bit of a non-traditional (market) where we don’t have the main focus on hockey, especially in the fall time.”
The NHL likely will never replace the grip the NFL has on the Puget Sound. But for a region that has embraced other sports franchises while lacking a winter sport for the past decade following the departure of the Sonics in 2008, the signs seem to point to a successful hockey venture in Seattle.
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