Many positives come with the NHL expansion franchise for Seattle. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

WHL’s Thunderbirds, Silvertips open to NHL joining Seattle hockey market

TORONTO — The Seattle area’s major junior hockey teams aren’t worried about competing for fans with the NHL expansion franchise coming to town.

The real competition in the region has already been going on for years at the local level, and it’s high school football, not the NHL, that Seattle Thunderbirds vice-president of hockey operations Russ Farwell has on his mind when trying to draw new hockey fans.

“It’s not a small thing but Friday night is high school football in the fall, you have to be aware of that. Football’s big in this region,” Farwell said.

The Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips play in the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division and are both within an hour drive of Seattle’s Key Arena, which is set to undergo an $800-million renovation in time for the 2021-22 NHL season.

Farwell, who has been with the Thunderbirds full-time since 1995 in various roles, including long-time owner before selling in 2017, was supportive of an NHL team entering the market when it was announced on Dec. 4 by league commissioner Gary Bettman.

He believes there could be many positives that come with an expansion team and that pro and amateur hockey are a different beast for various reasons, most notably the price point.

“For two NHL games you buy season tickets for Thunderbird hockey,” said Farwell. ”What we all face now is the competition for people’s time.”

“The other thing is we have free parking,” he quipped.

Farwell, originally from Peace River, Alta., is optimistic an NHL team in Seattle can help grow the game in the area, saying hockey is still a tough sell at a grassroots level.

“I don’t think any of us can tell you exactly what the impact will be,” Farwell said. ”We all have theories but we really think and hope the increased profile of the sport, which has been next to nothing in this area, will grow the overall base of fans and interest in the game and make up for any fans we would lose.”

Zoran Rajcic, vice president of Consolidated Sports Holdings Inc., which owns the Silvertips, agrees with Farwell.

“I think it’s positive, we’re a niche-oriented sport, even being less than hour from the Canadian border. I think the NHL will really raise the profile of hockey and the visibility of the sport.”

Farwell says talk of an NHL franchise in Seattle goes back at least a decade, and he prepared for it happening when the Thunderbirds moved out of KeyArena in 2009 and went 32 kilometres south to Kent, Wash., to play in the brand new ShoWare Center.

“We’ve been (in Kent) 10 years and (NHL expansion) was a big part of the discussion when they built the building,” said Farwell. ”We specifically suggested keeping the building at 6,000 seats… would help insulate us from a real strong negative hit if (expansion) were to happen. It was talked about that long ago.”

Rajcic says that with Everett’s location — 185 kilometres south of Vancouver and 320 kilometres north of Portland, Ore. — residents already get pro-team experiences in surrounding areas and it hasn’t affected the Silvertips negatively.

“We have fans that go to Vancouver Canucks games that are current season ticket holders and they go down south to the Trail Blazers basketball games in Portland,” said Rajcic. ”We’ve always had relevant sports for people to go to. The NHL, outside of a few markets, you’re looking at $150 a ticket on the low end. You’re getting 10 people into our game for that.”

Four cities are currently supporting both pro and junior hockey teams with some success.

The Edmonton Oil Kings share Rogers Arena with the Oilers and the Calgary Hitmen play in Scotiabank Saddledome with Flames. The Vancouver Giants, playing out of nearby Langley, B.C., have the Canucks, while the Ottawa 67’s play within 20 minutes of Canadian Tire Centre, home of the Senators.

Junior hockey has been in Seattle since 1977, when the Breakers joined the Western Canada Hockey League, a junior-A league at the time, that eventually became the WHL in 1982.

The club took on the Thunderbirds name in 1985-86 when the organization was purchased by new ownership. Their colours are navy blue, green and white and the logo depicts a thunderbird totem.

The Silvertips were founded in 2003 with forest green, brown and silver colours and have a grizzly bear logo.

Both teams have been able to get respectable numbers into their buildings in recent seasons, with Seattle No. 7 (4,625) and Everett No. 8 (4,617) in attendance this year among the 22 WHL clubs.

Rajcic even expects his team’s attendance to increase now that the fall has come and gone.

“We’ve gotten through the worst part with high school football September through November. Sold-out building this weekend for us, we’re just getting to where the season picks up and we don’t have as much competition at the local level.”

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