There were times throughout this junior hockey season when the ability to take in late-March playoff excitement at the ShoWare Center in Kent seemed little more than a passing dream.
And yet, following some trade-deadline moves and a final-month flurry, the hometown Seattle Thunderbirds gave 4,400 fans another chance last Tuesday to partake in postseason hockey, something that’s become an annual ritual. This is a golden era for the junior game in the Greater Seattle region, with either the Thunderbirds or rival Everett Silvertips making the last three Western Hockey League championship series.
While questions loom about both franchises’ future given the National Hockey League expansion team’s pending October 2021 debut, the Silvertips and Thunderbirds spent the season solidifying recent off-ice gains made during their playoff runs. Though it looked for much of this season like the Thunderbirds’ playoff streak was done, they finished strong enough for a seventh consecutive postseason appearance and by week’s end had kept alive the hope of meeting Everett again this spring.
“It’s very hard to be a championship-caliber team in this league, as everyone knows,’’ said WHL commissioner Rob Robison, in Kent this week for Game 3 of the Thunderbirds’ first-round series against Vancouver. “So, it’s a credit to the organizations, first of all, for building strong teams. It’s great for hockey in this area to have successful teams. It’s been a great rivalry from the outset, since Everett joined our league.”
Few can argue with Robison that the U.S. Division is one of the WHL’s strongest, given that nine of the last 11 WHL finals have involved one of the five U.S. teams in Kent, Everett, Portland, Spokane and the Tri-Cities. Similarly, no one disputes the road to success in the division has lately run through the Seattle region and will likely continue that way this year.
The Silvertips last spring came within a couple of blown leads of winning their first WHL title before bowing to Swift Current in six games. The prior year, the Thunderbirds won their first championship, beating Regina in six after losing the title to Brandon the previous season.
In all three seasons, the Thunderbirds and Silvertips had to get by one another in the playoffs. They’ve met four times the last five postseasons, and it wasn’t until last year that the Silvertips prevailed.
Both franchises’ playoff success has impacted their bottom lines. A review of WHL attendance figures last week by the NHL to Seattle hockey website found three of the top five clubs in attendance hail from the U.S. Division, with Everett fifth and Seattle ninth.
Everett this year grew attendance an astonishing 9 percent to a 5,614 average coming off their finals appearance last spring. The Thunderbirds slipped by 4 percent to 4,771, but that was a given considering their slow start and the fact they’d jumped 3 percent the prior year after winning the title.
The Thunderbirds have grown attendance 18 percent since their seven consecutive playoff appearances began in the 2012-13 season. They’ve topped 4,700 in average attendance four consecutive years, something that hasn’t happened since the late-1990s and early 2000s playing at KeyArena.
Everett hasn’t drawn this consistently well since late last decade, when a demographic shift of workers from the area began cutting into a fan base that had flocked to what’s now known as Angel of the Winds Arena since their 2003-04 franchise launch.
Robison said the junior game has strengthened to the north and south of Seattle, and his league is willing to work with the incoming NHL team “to grow the game’’ at all levels.
“We need it,’’ he said. “If we can get more grass-roots hockey involvement both with young boys and young girls, it’s going to be great for the game.’’
Among those attending this week’s T-birds home playoff opener was NHL Seattle senior adviser Dave Tippett, who spent much of the night closely watching two teams laden with future NHL talent — including Vancouver Giants defenseman Bowen Byram, a projected top-five draft pick.
Between periods, Tippett chatted in the concourse with hockey scouts and personnel, including T-birds senior adviser and former owner Russ Farwell, also a former Philadelphia Flyers general manager.
Farwell has long been a vocal proponent of the NHL’s arrival here being more a benefit to the junior game than a detractor that will steal fans away. He’ll tell you the two products are different, his go-to line being how fans can park for free at the Kent facility and buy lower-end T-birds season tickets for what parking at a single NHL game might cost.
Farwell guided the T-birds to their title two years ago as general manager before encouraging the rest of the eight-member ownership team to sell to the Silent Ice group owned by Alberta-based brothers Dan and Lindsey Leckelt.
They brought in Bil La Forge to succeed Farwell as GM and rebuild the squad after departures of NHL star Mathew Barzal and other pros such as Keegan Kolesar, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear. La Forge shook things up at the January trade deadline, adding goalie Roddy Ross and shipping leading scorer Zack Andrusiak to Everett for 20-year-old forward Sean Richards and a prospect.
The moves were viewed as a “sell” at the time — giving Andrusiak a chance with a playoff-bound team — until things clicked ahead of schedule.
The biggest difference has been Ross in net, his goals-against average of 2.76 and save percentage of .919 topping the 3.67 and .899 of predecessor Liam Hughes — also traded at the deadline. With hot goalies often the playoff ticket, the prospect of another T-birds postseason tilt with Everett suddenly isn’t as far-fetched.
That will still take some doing as their separation in the regular-season standings mean they can’t meet until the third round.
The Silvertips ran away with the U.S. Division by 12 points over the next closest finisher. It was the third straight division crown for Everett and their 45-23-4 mark was the third-best record in the 22-team league, signaling another Seattle-area championship run might be in the making.
For the Thunderbirds, their rockier journey saw them finish last in the U.S. Division with a 31-29-6 record and 70 points. But winning six of their final seven — including a 2-1 victory over Everett — helped them narrowly claim a wild-card spot.
Their reward, so to speak, was facing the league’s No. 2 overall Giants, 31 points ahead of them in the standings. Down 2-1 in the series, Thunderbirds captain Nolan Volcan said his team needed more focus. The following night, after falling behind 3-0, the T-birds rallied for a 4-3 win that evened the series heading into Game 5 of a best-of-seven series Friday back in B.C.
If the T-birds can somehow get by a team this highly ranked, the chance of another matchup with Everett two rounds from now looms larger.
“We’re a confident group,’’ Volcan said.
It’s a confidence that permeates throughout the region. And it shows no signs of abating until somebody can silence the Seattle-area teams that have dominated play west of the Canadian prairies for years.