Sleepless In Seattle

Local Hockey Community Excited To Welcome New NHL Franchise To Pacific Northwest


Dylan Gambrell can't wait for the rest of the world to discover what hockey fanatics in the Pacific Northwest have known for years:

Seattle will be an ideal market for the National Hockey League when it debuts as an expansion franchise in the 2021-22 season. And an already strong youth hockey system with seven associations in the immediate area is poised to grow exponentially.

"It's really exciting, and actually long overdue," said Gambrell, a native of nearby Bonney Lake, Wash., who is in his first full NHL season as a forward for the San Jose Sharks. 

"It's a great city, a great sports city, and hockey has been really strong there for a long, long time. It was just a matter of time before they got the NHL team. Fan-wise, they're going to do great. I couldn't be more excited."

It didn't take long for Seattle to prove Gambrell's assertion. Seattle received 10,000 deposits in the first 12 minutes and a total of 25,000 on the first day of a season ticket drive that came eight full months before the NHL made it official and granted the Emerald City an expansion franchise on Dec. 4, 2018.

"The NHL has been talked about for years, but nobody thought it would actually happen," said Doug Kirton, the hockey director for the Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association in Seattle. "Now it's happening, and the buzz is off the charts. It's just really a great time for hockey, and it's an extremely busy time, too.

"We've been doing a pretty good job of growing the game here, but, based on everything we've seen so far, it's going to probably explode in popularity. (Seattle NHL) is very committed to the Learn to Play program and the industry growth, so it's going to be huge."

Seattle is certainly no stranger to the sport. 

The Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Hockey Association became the first United States-based team to win the Stanley Cup when they defeated the Montreal Canadiens in 1917, and the city hosted minor-pro teams for decades. Most recently, the Seattle Thunderbirds and nearby Everett Silvertips have been successful franchises in the Western Hockey League. 

But, while youth programs have been going strong for more than five decades, many considered hockey to be somewhat of a niche sport in the area. Until the NHL committed to Seattle.

"The hockey passion is very deep in the community, and for the people in the hockey world, having the NHL announce it was coming has excited them to no end. They're bringing their friends, and people are starting to see what hockey is all about," said Donna Kaufman, USA Hockey's vice president and chair of the Junior Council. She has operated a rink in nearby Tacoma since the early 1990s. 

"There's a great culture of sports in the Seattle area. There are Seahawks flags all over the state, and the NHL team sold out its season tickets in 10 minutes. That shows you that this community is excited about this venture and is completely behind it. Those are all indications that we're ready, and a passionate group of hockey people and families is going to lead the charge."

The new NHL team figures to attract a whole new fan base, aside from those who have had a previous connection to the sport. Seattle will also benefit from the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" campaign, which has gathered nothing but momentum since debuting 22 years ago.

"The diversity program the NHL is doing right now is fantastic," Kaufman said. "Having Cammi Granato as one of the new NHL team's scouts ties right into female hockey and growing that sector. The rink in Tacoma is compatible for disabled hockey, and there are a lot of military members out here to tie into warrior hockey. So, the opportunities and the places we can go in the area are going to grow exponentially because we'll have the NHL team."  

Since the announcement of the expansion franchise, six new ice surfaces have either begun construction or have been planned to accommodate the expected influx of new players. 

"The more resources we have, the more we can go out and promote the sport," Kaufman said. "If you don't get the extra sheets of ice, you can't put new players anywhere anyway. There's a lot more we can do in terms of awareness and teaching the game. The education and the excitement of something new is helping with the growth."

The growth of hockey will extend well beyond the immediate Seattle area and into the entire Pacific Northwest Amateur Hockey Association. 

Dennis LaRue, the president of the Spokane Americans Youth Hockey Association and a former NHL referee, said fans in his community placed deposits on tickets despite a 280-mile commute. He has also spoken with fans 30 miles away in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, who have expressed interest in the new team.

"Our anticipation is there will be a pretty big ripple effect across a pretty good-sized distance, and we'll be part of that," LaRue said. "Obviously, we probably won't see the growth to the extent of Seattle, but there will be quite a regional appeal."

And there will be more NHL role models for youth players to emulate. Washington state has produced 13 NHL players, including current players T.J. Oshie, Tyler Johnson, Derek Ryan, Kailer Yamamoto and Gambrell. 

"It's always fun and it's always great for the game for people to have an allegiance to a National League team," LaRue said. "That filters down to the local organization. The younger kids have a hero or someone to look up to.

"The more players you get, the more depth you have. And the more depth you have, the more quality you'll produce. It's an exciting time."

And the rest of the world will discover what hockey fanatics in the Pacific Northwest have known for years: Seattle will be an ideal market for the NHL.


            Jim Leitner is a freelance writer based in Dubuque, Iowa.




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