SEATTLE — As I stood packed shoulder to shoulder with more than 100 cheering fans in a bar at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, one thought flashed across my mind:
Dec. 4, 2018, is the day the Puget Sound region’s love affair with hockey officially began.
The hockey love was in the air at Henry’s Tavern in the South Lake Union neighborhood Tuesday morning, where the NHL Seattle group held its fan viewing party for the announcement of Seattle being awarded an expansion franchise. But this is no May-December romance. Hockey and the Pacific Northwest is a relationship that’s going to last.
Hockey fans from throughout the region gathered Tuesday morning to celebrate what was essentially a foregone conclusion: that the NHL’s Board of Governors, meeting in Sea Island, Georgia, would vote in favor of granting Seattle an expansion team. It was standing room only at Henry’s, the room filled with revelers wearing a wide variety of colorful hockey sweaters. By the time the official announcement was imminent people were being turned away at the doors.
I ran into several familiar faces at the event, including former Everett Silvertips front-office worker Aaron Wilson, whose words echoed the sentiments of all in the room:
“I’ve been waiting 30 years for this.”
Many of the heavy hitters in Seattle’s bid to land an NHL team were in attendance, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, ownership group members Chris and Ted Ackerley, and senior advisor and former NHL head coach Dave Tippett. Durkan let the cat out of the bag a little early when she told the crowd that her sources in the room said the vote was unanimous in favor. But the biggest cheers were still reserved for when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it official during a live television broadcast.
It was the euphoria that accompanies a first kiss. But these were the diehards, those who fell in love with hockey long before. The true test will be with the Seattle sports fans who aren’t hockey enthusiasts. Will these fans of the Seahawks and Mariners, Sonics and Huskies, Sounders and Storm, take to the yet-to-be-named NHL team with equal fervor?
Well, if I’m any indication, then it’s going to be love at first sight.
When I was hired by The Herald to be the newspaper’s Silvertips beat writer in 2003, I’d been to one hockey game my entire life. I didn’t follow hockey closely, I knew nothing about the sport’s intricacies. Being a former baseball player I was more excited about the prospect of covering the Everett AquaSox.
But the moment I began attending games regularly I was hooked.
“People are going to learn it’s a great game, a great fan-friendly game,” Tippett said, supporting my thoughts. “You go to the game and there’s action. If people haven’t seen the NHL live, you go to it and you’ll come back for more.”
Indeed, the magic of hockey is that of all the sports I’ve covered, hockey is the one that’s best watched in person as opposed to watching on television.
The biggest problem I had with hockey before I began covering the Silvertips was that it was difficult following the puck on the TV screen. Yes, high definition has improved that issue, but viewers are still at the mercy of the camera operators. Even now when I watch hockey on TV I sometimes find myself looking at the reactions of players in the vicinity of where I expect the puck to go, rather than trying to find the puck itself.
But that’s not the case live. When I first began covering the Silvertips I was stunned at how much easier it was to follow the puck with my own eyes. The viewer experience improved exponentially, and 15 years later I still cover Silvertips games from the edge of my seat.
A live viewer also experiences just how fast the players are moving. On television the speed of the game is obscured by the movement of the camera. However, in person one can’t help but be awed by the speeds — sometimes approaching 30 mph — at which the players are stickhandling the puck and colliding with one another.
“I think people are going to learn what a fast-paced and enjoyable game it is to watch,” said Emily Jo Michele, who attended Tuesday’s event clad in her Silvertips jersey. “It looks like chaos, but the second you get one or two of the rules down and understand a little of what’s happening, it becomes like hyper-speed chess.
“It completely changes how you watch it and it becomes actually I think a lot more approachable than people think it is because it’s so quick,” Michele added. “I think once people get a chance to see it first-hand it’s going to make a lot more sense, and it cracks it open for people.”
What’s going to flow from that crack? A gushing river of hockey love, and it’ll inevitably fuel an affair that lasts for the long haul.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.