But ex-Everett star Peter Mueller is a late injury scratch

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EVERETT — Doug Soetaert and the Everett Silvertips took a financial risk and it paid off handsomely Tuesday night.

Last summer Soetaert, the general manager of the Silvertips, told his old New York Ranger teammate Don Maloney that he thought an NHL exhibition game would go well in Everett.

Maloney, the general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes, found an opening in the team’s exhibition schedule. Tuesday night’s 2-1 win by the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Coyotes in front of 7,281 was the result.

A crowd of several thousand snaked around the outside of Comcast Arena several hours before the game began, many wearing the No. 88 jersey Peter Mueller wore in Everett and dozens more wearing Mueller’s No. 88 jersey with the Coyotes.

Unfortunately, Mueller, a third-year pro who starred for two seasons in Everett, injured his groin muscle and did not dress. Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky, who is also a minority owner, was not in attendance as the team goes through bankruptcy.

Mueller tried to talk his way into the lineup, but in the end he was unsuccessful.

“It was really tough to sit out and [not] play in front of this crowd again,” Mueller said. “I didn’t play, but it was a great experience seeing so many familiar faces and something I’ll cherish forever. It’s not a serious injury, but you don’t want to push it.”

Mueller had dinner for former Silvertip teammates Zack Dailey and Shane Harper at his house of his former billet Parker Fowles.

“It was just like old times, like I never left,” Mueller said.

It was the first NHL game in the Puget Sound area since Sept. 23, 1997, when the Los Angeles Kings played the Vancouver Canucks at the Tacoma Dome.

Jeff Halpern scored twice for Tampa Bay and goaltender Mike Smith had 32 saves for the Lightning. Petr Prucha scored the only goal for Phoenix.

Soetaert, a goaltender who played for parts of 12 seasons in the NHL beginning in 1975, said there were two reasons he wanted to bring the NHL to Everett.

“One was for the building and the other was for our season-ticket holders,” Soetaert said. “It’s Tuesday night in downtown Everett and the place is jam packed. That’s what it’s all about.”

Zoran Rajcic, the team’s director of marketing, said they approached the game as a reward for suite holders and season-ticket holders.

The highest priced ticket for the game was $60 and the team’s 3,700 season-ticket holders quickly snapped up 4,400 of them.

“We got over the initial hump for us pretty quick,” Rajcic said. “We tried to keep it affordable. It was an opportunity for our fans and the whole region to see an NHL game. We’ve heard that people had trouble getting tickets to see the [Vancouver] Canucks play because they were sold out.”

Soetaert admitted the team needed to approach a sellout to financially viable.

“We went out on a limb for this and it’s something that’s going to work well for both teams,” Soetaert said. “We had faith in our fans that this was something they wanted to see.”

Soetaert said that even though it was an exhibition game, it was a game that many players take very seriously.

“Guys are battling for jobs in these games,” Soetaert said. “For young guys, it’s the difference between $70,000 in minors or $500,000 in the NHL. For the veterans, it’s all about finding you’re A game. There aren’t many opportunities to get ready for the season.”

Soetaert said that the response to Tuesday’s game shows how much interest there is in hockey in the Puget Sound area and how well an NHL franchise might do in Seattle.

“In the right location, in a brand-new building, it would go very well,” Soetaert said.

He was adamant that it wouldn’t work in KeyArena, where the Seattle Thunderbirds played until they moved to Kent last season.

“There’s no chance anyone would put an NHL team in KeyArena,” Soetaert said. “It’s just not suited for it. They would have to have a new building with all the bells and whistles. That’s why the basketball team left.”

The Silvertips placed a bid to host the Memorial Cup for 2010, but it was awarded to Brandon. Soetaert said Tuesday’s crowd would be more evidence of how successful hockey events can be in the Puget Sound.

“The league knows how well supported we are and that our fans and that our community wants the Memorial Cup,” Soetaert said. “We’ve been trying to get events here, but haven’t been able to mainly because of Canadian sponsors.”

The Silvertips had five straight winning seasons, before slipping to 27-36-7-2 last season.

“We had some that dropped off with what went on last year, but I know that with our hiring of Craig [Hartsburg as the new head coach] and the direction our team is going, we’ve gained some of them back. Our attendance was still near 6,000 last year, so we’re OK. Our fans stick with us through thick and thin and you’ll see that on Saturday.”

The Silvertips, 1-1, open their home season on Saturday against the Vancouver Giants.

Mueller played two season in Everett, helping the Silvertips win two division titles. He was drafted eighth overall in the 2006 NHL draft and made the Coyotes roster at age 19.

With Mueller out, former Silvertips defenseman Shaun Heshka took the center spotlight starting for the Coyotes.

Heshka played three seasons for Everett starting in the 2004-05 season.