The two rival Seattle area junior teams, featuring players ages 16-to-20, are winning this season. They view the NHL as a positive that should spur hockey interest without harming their business.
Early in the second period of a game last week, the folks running the freshly bolstered Everett Silvertips had to be antsy.
The major junior team atop the U.S. Division of the Western Hockey League had scored just once on 25 shots to that point against the visiting Tri-City Americans. Earlier that day, they’d capped a whirlwind trade deadline run-up by acquiring three new players to go with a prior blockbuster deal that brought in two others primarily to help convert more chances into goals.
“I thought we kind of came out a little sluggish,’’ first-year Silvertips coach Dennis Williams would say afterward, attributing the early missed opportunities to a post-deadline easing up by players relieved at having not been traded. “We kind of sat back, instead of taking the attitude that we’ve got to prove ourselves every day.’’
Williams addressed the situation midgame and the Silvertips eventually found the net for a 4-0 win as they enter a pivotal phase in their relatively young 14-season history. Both they and the rival Seattle Thunderbirds in Kent are still solidifying regional business toeholds and could soon face new challenges with the expected arrival of a National Hockey League expansion team.
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Winning now to strengthen their support bases would appear paramount, as neither is certain of what a shared future with an NHL team holds.
The Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings, both owned by NHL teams in those cities, average a WHL-best mark of around 7,300 fans per game. But the Vancouver Giants are 18th of 22 teams in WHL attendance at 3,274 fans, while the Brandon Wheat Kings in suburban Winnipeg are 12th at 3,761 while sharing NHL markets. The Mississauga Steelheads in suburban Toronto are second-to-last among 20 teams in Ontario Hockey League attendance at 2,599, while the Ottawa 67s do fairly well at No. 6 with 4,359 fans sharing with the NHL Maple Leafs and Senators, respectively.
Montreal is the only NHL city in Canada without a major junior team, the last struggling one having relocated five years ago.
The two Seattle-area junior teams, featuring players ages 16 to 20, say they view the NHL as a positive that should spur hockey interest without harming their business. The T-birds are eighth and the Silvertips ninth in WHL attendance and both, admittedly, have further room to maximize support ahead of any NHL arrival.
The Silvertips finished first in the division last year, but the T-birds eliminated them in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons en route to their first WHL championship. Everett fired head coach Kevin Constantine and replaced him with Williams.
But despite another first-place start this year, attendance at the team’s 8,300-seat arena is well off the average 6,000-plus of a decade ago. Everett has averaged 4,499 per game this season, and only 2,997 attended the Tri-City game on a rainy midweek night.
Silvertips chief operating officer Zoran Rajcic shrugs that off, saying midweek games rarely draw well and sales for upcoming opponents are brisk. In fact, Rajcic says the January-through-April sales period — when junior hockey attendance typically spikes — bodes well given the Silvertips have mostly weekend home games remaining.
If last week’s player additions keep them in first place — indeed, Everett combined for 11 more goals in subsequent wins last Sunday over Portland and in a Monday rematch with Tri-City — Rajcic projects them possibly averaging beyond 5,000 fans for the first time since 2012-13. And if there’s a deep playoff run, longer-term benefits await.
“People get more invigorated if the team does well and it helps the sales,’’ Rajcic said. “If you sell another 150 to 200 season tickets, that’s a big spike in our business.’’
Rajcic doesn’t see a future NHL team cutting into a fanbase running as far north as Bellingham.
“I don’t think there will be a mass exodus of fans because of the cost of it,’’ he said. “The reason hockey works at our level is, we’re very family affordable. Four full-season tickets here in Everett for good seats will probably be the equivalent of what it costs for one or two good nights at an NHL game.’’
The Silvertips counted nearly 4,000 season-ticket holders in 2008-09, but only about 2,700 today. Rajcic says the “honeymoon period’’ of a new team wore off, while changed demographics — like Boeing workers relocating to other communities — also eroded the base.
So, growing anew is important. Not just for the team’s corporate owners, but local taxpayers who built the arena in 2003.
A 10-year, $7.4 million naming-rights deal for the city-owned arena, previously held by Comcast, expired last summer. Angel of the Winds Casino Resort last month inked a $3.4 million deal for those rights through 2028, less than half what Comcast paid.
The Silvertips are the arena’s anchor tenant and dramatically impact its bottom line. After making money yearly last decade, the building since 2010 only twice turned modest profits of just over $100,000 in 2015 and 2016.
In Kent, where the defending-champion Thunderbirds are anchor tenants at the 6,500-seat ShoWare Center, average attendance has soared from 3,853 their first full season there eight years ago to 4,712 this season. Deep playoff runs the last two years trimmed the city-owned arena’s annual losses, but it’s yet to turn a profit since its 2009 opening.
Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell, who was GM of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1990s, doesn’t see an NHL team hurting the “cheaper ticket” junior game.
“We don’t charge for parking,’’ he said. “You’ll pay more for parking at an NHL game than for tickets to see ours.”
Still, since the T-birds moved to Kent from KeyArena, they’ve yet to fully tap into a fan base stretching south to Olympia.
“We still have people that say ‘Geez, we didn’t even know that there was a rink here,’ ’’ Farwell said. “We’re selling to people from the south and there was no hockey here before. So, we’ve still got lots of unconverted people yet that we can get to.’’
The T-birds saw stars Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear and head coach Steve Konowalchuk graduate to the pros this season. Nevertheless, led by new coach Matt O’Dette and returnees Nolan Volcan, Donovan Neuls and Zack Andrusiak, they’d gone unbeaten in nine before losing twice last weekend to climb within six points of Everett with three games in hand.
And that, more than anything, might have spurred the rival Silvertips into trade-deadline action.
Everett already had the WHL’s best goaltender in Flyers prospect Carter Hart and had allowed a league-best 107 goals in their first 43 contests.
But they’d scored barely three goals per game when GM Garry Davidson last week acquired leading point-maker Garrett Pilon and the cannon shot of defenseman Ondrej Vala from Kamloops to bolster an offense led by Matt Fonteyne.
Pilon and Vala debuted against Tri-City, hours after Davidson made three more deals for two forwards and a defenseman.
The Silvertips amassed 57 shots against a Tri-City squad missing several regulars. But it wasn’t until defenseman Kevin Davis’ short-handed breakaway goal for a 2-0 lead midway through the second period that the team’s scoring shackles were loosened.
Davis said players are excited by the moves and the message sent about going for it. “Absolutely, yeah,’’ he said. “We’re definitely excited with the group that we have going down the stretch here. We’re really looking forward to it.’’
Much as the team’s front office is equally excited about what a deep run could mean for a franchise still carving its niche in what could become a crowded hockey marketplace.