KENT — Gig Harbor native Mekai Sanders didn’t discover hockey until his father’s computer software job took their family to British Columbia for about 18 months.
Upon returning to Washington, Sanders joined the Sno-King hockey association, then the storied Compuware program in Detroit and now is a rookie forward with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the major junior Western Hockey League (WHL). As the Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips this weekend launch their first full seasons since Seattle landed a National Hockey League franchise, they hope its pending October 2021 arrival spurs more local growth in the game and their bottom lines.
And getting more local youths interested in hockey, without having to go elsewhere like Sanders to discover it, will likely be key to the junior programs and NHL co-existing.
“Hopefully it brings a little more interest because not a lot of people know about hockey and what the sport really is here in Washington,’’ Sanders, 16, said after his Thunderbirds last week wrapped up the pre-season here with a 5-4 win over the Silvertips at the ShoWare Center. “I hope it attracts more people and more people learn what the sport is about.’’
Sanders is what both clubs want; attending Thunderbirds games as a child after being introduced to the sport and now an example for younger players that locals can reach the highest ranks of junior hockey and dream of a professional career.
“I always looked up to these guys,” Sanders said. “So being able to come here and put on a Thunderbirds jersey has just been unreal.”
He’ll be draft eligible in 2021, just as NHL Seattle begins selecting its team.
Another Washington native, Silvertips forward Dawson Butt, 19, of Buckley, scored the final goal of last week’s somewhat sloppy affair as Everett suffered its first regulation defeat in six preseason games.
The Thunderbirds finished the preseason 5-0-1-0 and open here against Kamloops on Saturday after a surprising playoff berth last spring. Everett faces the Tri-City Americans on Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena after making the U.S. Division final last season.
Recent on-ice success has bolstered attendance to where both are confident the NHL won’t overshadow them.
“The one thing the NHL (team) in Seattle has been committed to is growing the game in the region,’’ said T-Birds co-owner Dan Leckelt, who, with his brother, Lindsey, bought the team after its first WHL title in 2017. “Certainly, we’re getting some influence now, but in the future, when there’s more little hockey players skating around, they’ll be fans of the NHL team but there will also be other avenues for junior hockey fans.’’
The Leckelt brothers live just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, where they’ve watched the WHL Oil Kings and NHL Oilers co-exist for years. The Oil Kings led WHL attendance for the third straight time last season with 7,661 fans per game.
“If you look at their fan base, there are a lot of minor hockey kids and they run a lot of programs for the minor hockey kids much like they do here,’’ Leckelt said.
The T-Birds drew 4,771 fans per game last season, 9th best of 22 league teams and only slightly off their post-title 4,950 from 2017-18. Attendance is up 80 percent from a decade ago despite a team rebuild last season before a late run secured the playoff berth.
They’ve lost graduating forwards Noah Phlp and Nolan Volcan while 40-goal-scorer Matthew Wedman was in camp with the NHL Florida Panthers and is still with their American Hockey League affiliate. But forward Henrik Rybinski was returned by Florida while Alex Morozoff was acquired by trade last week and scored twice in the preseason finale.
Everett is enjoying the best sustained success in its history; three straight U.S. Division regular season titles and five consecutive playoff pushes to the second round or beyond — including the 2018 WHL final. They’ve lost forwards Connor Dewar and Riley Sutter to entry-level NHL deals and defenseman Jake Christiansen is still in camp with St. Louis. But standout goalie Dustin Wolf was returned by the Calgary Flames, as was Lake Stevens defenseman Wyatte Wylie by the Philadelphia Flyers. Newly-named captain Bryce Kindopp, 20, was also sent back by Florida while Montreal returned defenseman Gianni Fairbrother.
Silvertips chief operating officer Zoran Rajcic said ticket sales are up 10-to-12 percent after growing roughly the same last season to 5,614 fans per game — their biggest tally since 2010-11 and fifth highest in the league.
It helps that the per-game cost of a Silvertips season ticket runs $13-to-$26 while the T-Birds are at $13-to-$30, with both offering further discounted group and famly packages. Contrast that with the average per game Vegas Golden Knights season ticket cost of $100 – which jumps beyond $250 on the secondary market – and the price gap between NHL and junior levels has gotten so big that co-existing may no longer be as challenging.
“With the non-traditional hockey fans, our guys do an unbelievable job of selling to groups,’’ Rajcic said. “To casual people who say ‘Hey, our church group, our school or our company wants to go and do something…’ When you’re pitching a $10 or $12 ticket, it’s really a no-brainer.’’
Rajcic expects those sales to grow as NHL Seattle raises local hockey awareness.
They’re also targeting younger fans through family packages of six-to-14 games. With local youth hockey expecting an NHL-sparked enrollment surge, the Silvertips hope to grow and keep those younger fans through the next decade.
Rajcic said NHL Seattle met collectively with the five Washington-based U.S. Division teams and the Portland Winterhawks to discuss ways to benefit one another.
“In general, for all of us, the goal is to find stuff that they (NHL Seattle) can get attached to – some existing programs,’’ he said. “Like, we have our ‘Street Hockey Day’ and that’s something that interests them. Maybe doing initiatives with our youth hockey programs, because we’re all pretty tied to those.’’
The T-Birds-owning Lekelt brothers already did cross-promotional work on ticket and suite sales with NHL Seattle last season. Lindsey Leckelt was impressed by NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke’s vision of growing hockey throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“I think it’s going to stretch our fan base maybe even a little more broadly,’’ he said. “Maybe pulling in more of the urban areas of Seattle itself and some of the suburbs.’’
Any new fans can now see locals, like Sanders, competing for an NHL chance. Sanders becoming draft-eligible just as NHL Seattle gets to pick players for the first time opens up some intriguing possibilities for a hometown player.
“I never really thought about that way,’’ Sanders said. “But hopefully I’ll be in there and maybe somebody can pick me up.’’