Could Seattle become a hot bed for pro hockey if it lands an NHL franchise? Some believe it could and point to adult- and youth-league participation plus junior-hockey attendance.

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The arena debate brought out the extremes in Seattle sports.

On one side, avid basketball fans wearing Sonics attire cheered in support of the plan to build a sports arena in Seattle’s Sodo District. On the other, taxpayers voiced their disapproval of public money spent for a sporting venue.

While they bickered, a third group skated along almost unnoticed.

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Hockey fans weren’t represented in Seattle City Council and Metropolitan King County hearings, but some in the sport say the region could be on the cusp of a hockey explosion if an NHL franchise arrives.

Until then, these fans are rooting for the area’s two junior-hockey franchises, participating in one of the largest adult hockey leagues in the country and building a grass-roots fan base with youth hockey leagues.

“It’s probably the best market in the United States that does not have a hockey team demographically,” Chicago investor Don Levin said when he publicly stated his interest in bringing an NHL team to Seattle.

Junior hockey base

Until the NHL comes, the Western Hockey League is the biggest hockey show in town. Both local junior-hockey franchises, the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips, have solid attendance.

The Thunderbirds arrived 10 years after the last professional team, the Totems, left Seattle. The Thunderbirds played at KeyArena until the franchise moved to Kent in 2009.

The Thunderbirds retained 95 percent of their season-ticket holders at the ShoWare Center, according to Colin Campbell, team vice-president and assistant general manager. The Thunderbirds saw an 8 percent increase last season in attendance, averaging a little more than 4,200, despite finishing toward the bottom of the Western Conference.

“They’re a loyal following, no question,” Campbell said.

Their rivals up north, the Silvertips, arrived in 2003 and are celebrating their 10th season. Many didn’t expect hockey to work in Snohomish County, but the Silvertips broke expansion records on their way to the WHL Finals. The run quickly captured the area’s interest in hockey.

The Silvertips’ success has dipped, but their attendance still ranks in the top third in the WHL. They averaged 5,278 last season.

“It’s pretty impressive fan support and it’s been pretty unwavering over that span as well,” said Travis Huntington, the team’s director of broadcasting and public relations.

Pro hockey has a long history in Seattle that dates almost a century. The Seattle Metropolitans played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association from 1915-24. They won the Stanley Cup in 1917, beating the Montreal Canadiens, champions of the league that became the NHL. Minor-league hockey has come and gone in Seattle since the 1920s, with the Eskimos, Sea Hawks, Ironmen, Bombers, Americans and Totems, plus the Rockets and Sabercats in Tacoma.

Crunching numbers

Data from the research firm Scarborough, which surveyed people from the Seattle metropolitan area, shows that interest in the NHL is comparable to at least one other NHL city. Only 9.2 percent said they were somewhat or very interested in the NHL, about the same as Phoenix (10.4). Seattle’s interest is lower than two other areas that added the NHL in the past 25 years — Dallas-Fort Worth (13.2) and San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland (17.2), although interest would likely rise if a team locates in Seattle.

Seattle’s interest in the NHL is below that of other major-league men’s pro sports with teams here. Yet it’s already higher than interest in MLS before that pro soccer league expanded to Seattle. In 2004-2005, only 7.1 percent from Seattle said they were somewhat or very interested in MLS. That number has more than doubled to 17.2 percent, and Sounders FC has been a stunning hit here, breaking MLS attendance records.

And Seattle’s interest in the NHL is now close to the NBA (12.5 percent), the other pro sport expected to share a proposed $490 million sports arena proposed by a group headed by Chris Hansen.

The Seattle City and King County councils approved an agreement Monday to help build an arena in Sodo.

Impressive participation

Fans lace up their skates in Seattle in impressive numbers. The Seattle area ranks 12th nationally in adult hockey participation. Andy Cole founded the Greater Seattle Hockey League in 2001, which hovers around 100 teams with more than 2,000 players. It remains by the far the biggest adult league in the region.

The league embraces beginners, hauling in about 200 new players every year. Cole, a Boston native, said nearly a third of his league consists of transplants from Canada. The league also includes natives from the Midwest and Northeast.

“It created an opportunity for a lot of people to take up the game,” Cole said.

Jamie Huscroft, who played 10 seasons in the NHL, manages rinks in Renton and Kirkland, two of the Puget Sound’s 14 hockey facilities. Huscroft said the GSHL has kept the rinks in the area busy.

The growth in youth hockey participation the past two decades hasn’t helped.

Huscroft, who spent four seasons with the Thunderbirds, assists in youth-development programs at his rinks. Seattle has about 2,000 youth hockey members, according to USA Hockey.

In a nontraditional hockey market, it’s crucial for teams like the Thunderbirds and Silvertips to spur the grass-roots movement. Both are involved with youth hockey associations throughout the Puget Sound.

“When you get the kids involved, that’s really important to growing the game,” Huntington said. “When you have kids and you get them into hockey, and you get yourself into hockey, it just starts to grow more and more.”

Seattle, however, has a different model than most hockey markets. The adult hockey participation is higher than youth, which could benefit ticket sales for a future NHL franchise.

And the Seattle hockey scene could be in better shape than some NHL cities were before they received a franchise.

Dallas has one of the nation’s best youth hockey programs, which sounded crazy in 1993 when the Stars relocated from Minnesota.

USA Hockey’s Rocky Mountain region, which includes Texas, had 13,566 total players in 1993 — the second smallest region. Now Texas alone boasts more than 5,000 youth players.

“The youth base here is a lot bigger than in other areas when NHL teams went in,” said Gordon Brown, Pacific Northwest Amateur Hockey Association president. “In Dallas there was no hockey base at all. Same with Columbus years ago, there was nothing there.”

Ohio, Minnesota, Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona also saw enormous adult hockey growth after landing NHL franchises. In some cases, the participation increased nearly sixfold.

If an NHL franchise comes to the Puget Sound, Cole said the sport would see the same growth in Seattle, which already has more adult hockey players than four of those states.

“People would come out of the woodwork,” Cole said.

Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this article.

NHL interest
Comparing the percentage of adults in the Seattle area who said they were somewhat or very interested in the NHL to three cities with NHL teams, with year the team came to that city:
Metro area Pct. Team Year
Seattle 9.2 None
Phoenix 10.4 Coyotes 1996
Dallas-Fort Worth 13.2 Stars 1993
Bay Area 17.2 Sharks 1991
Source: Scarborough
Majors in Seattle
How interest in the NHL compares to other major pro sports in Seattle:
League Team Pct.
NFL Seahawks 42.0
MLB Mariners 33.0
MLS Sounders FC 17.2
NBA None 12.5
NHL None 9.2
WNBA Storm 5.9
Source: Scarborough
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