Silvertips were built for success, community pride

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 what is now 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 long-term future would bring.

As the Silvertips prepare to drop the puck on the team’s 10th anniversary season in the coming weeks, however, 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 hockey team in Everett.

“He knew the market and saw something no one else had seen,” said Kim Bedier, general manager of Comcast Arena. “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 during 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 1, 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. In short, 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 even 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 during the past nine seasons. Last year, when the season-long home attendance finally dipped below 200,000 fans for the first time in the team’s history, the Silvertips’ attendance ranked eighth among WHL teams, according to Travis Huntington, the team’s director of broadcasting and public relations.

For comparison, average attendance for the Seattle Thunderbirds — which moved into a new arena in Kent three years ago — hasn’t exceeded 4,500 during 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 team’s single-game ticket prices, which have risen slightly over the years, regularly start at $14 a person — just more than an evening movie ticket. Especially with promotions and coupons that lower that price further, a family of four can enter a Silvertips game for $50 to $60 — about the cost of one average NHL ticket.

While most Silvertips fans live within a 15-mile radius of downtown Everett, the team draws fans from the Snohomish-King county line all the way to 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,” he added.

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 over the years has helped the facility make its obligations, including bond payments, and even make a net 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 been contracted to run the facility since its opening.

The team’s ability to draw fans also has attracted other teams to Everett, Bedier said, though with varying success. 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 a lease 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. In fact, according to the arena’s last annual report, 57 percent of the Comcast Community Ice Rink’s revenue comes from the 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 the anniversary season, the Silvertips arguably are in relatively unfamiliar territory. Davidson, entering his first full season at the helm of the team’s hockey operation, is only the second general manager in the team’s history, succeeding Doug Soetaert. Head Coach Mark Ferner’s entering his second season after an adversity-filled 2011-12, though the team still managed to make the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year.

Rajcic said that despite the high-profile changes in the general manager and coaching positions over the past year, fans shouldn’t worry about an overall shift in direction.

“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.”

Meanwhile, the thing that most people pay attention to, the on-ice action, is fast approaching. This summer, in addition to the usual front office activity surrounding ticket renewals, sponsorship renewals and planning, the organization unveiled new anniversary season uniforms and logos. The full-tilt preseason activity ends soon, Rajcic said, and that’s when the first puck of the landmark season will drop at Comcast Arena.

“Once Sept. 22 comes around, he said, “everything has to be in place for that first home game.”

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