Canadian hockey blogger Gregg Drinnan reported a source claimed the Western Hockey League might play two outdoor games at Safeco Field by 2019, perhaps with the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips each playing a game.
Inside sports business
Could we soon see outdoor hockey played at Safeco Field? Just weeks after the Mariners’ ballpark played host to a music concert by the Eagles comes word via Kamloops, British Columbia, hockey blogger Gregg Drinnan that the Western Hockey League is exploring the possibility of staging two outdoor games there.
Drinnan, a former sports editor at the Kamloops Daily News before it folded in 2014, wrote in his Taking Note blog last week that a source claimed the WHL might play two games at Safeco by 2019. The source was quoted saying the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips junior teams could each play a game there.
The timing is intriguing, given how rumors continue to abound the NHL could award a franchise early next year to play at a revamped KeyArena by the 2020-21 season. All of a sudden, our city could become Hockey Central and the idea of showcasing the junior version of the sport on a big stage makes a whole lot of sense.
Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell said Friday his organization approached the Mariners more than three years ago to explore such a possibility. Farwell said he and some T-birds representatives visited Safeco Field with members of the Mariners, including then-senior director of ballpark operations Tony Pereira and head groundskeeper Bob Christofferson.
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“We walked the field and talked about where it would go and stuff,’’ Farwell said.
But Farwell added the T-birds haven’t had follow-up discussions since Kevin Mather became the Mariners’ team president. That was in January 2014.
Not that Farwell thinks Mather would be an impediment. In fact, Farwell said he feels Mather would improve chances of such a game happening, since the Midwest-raised Mariners president played hockey briefly at the University of Wisconsin and is someone Farwell has met before.
Farwell, a former general manager of the NHL Philadelphia Flyers, says it was more the T-birds’ choice that nothing came of the outdoor-game idea.
“It wasn’t out of the question, (the Mariners) would do it if you could pay the freight,” Farwell said. “We just weren’t able to take it on at that time. But it’s something we’ll look at, and I think we’ll explore again.”
Among the bigger issues was the possibility of having to put up $85,000 to re-sod the outfield if the grass didn’t take properly once the ice surface was removed. For the same reason, Farwell said, the Mariners viewed playing host to outdoor hockey after January as a non-starter because it was too close to the start of baseball season.
Farwell also said his T-birds, who won their first WHL championship last spring and were finalists a year earlier, have been busy their past two highly successful seasons. But looking ahead, he feels an outdoor game could be “real good” for his team, the sport and the city.
“I think it would raise hockey’s profile, and, boy, wouldn’t it be a great venue for a game?’’
Mariners spokesman Randy Adamack said the team hasn’t held any recent talks with WHL clubs, but did get a call from “a promoter’’ the past year wanting to explore an outdoor hockey game. Nothing further came of it. “We’d certainly be interested in looking at the possibility and seeing where it could lead,” Adamack said.
Spokane played host to the WHL’s first outdoor game on Jan. 15, 2011, at Avista Stadium, when 7,075 saw the hometown Chiefs blast the Kootenay Ice 11-2.
On Feb. 21, 2011, there were 20,888 on hand at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, Alberta, to see the local Hitmen lose 3-2 to the Regina Pats.
Regina will host an outdoor game against Moose Jaw at the new Mosaic Stadium in February. Farwell said the price he heard Regina is paying to install the rink there is far more than what he was quoted for Safeco Field several years back.
“So, again, we’d have to go back and price it out,” he said.
Fans in the WHL’s U.S. Division have long complained about the lack of big junior-hockey events in the Pacific Northwest. There have been only four Memorial Cup tournaments — Canadian junior hockey’s championship showcase — held in this region since 1983, including at KeyArena in 1992.
And it’s not like junior hockey can’t draw here. On one night last spring, the Thunderbirds and Silvertips drew a combined 14,000-plus to a pair of games.
The Mariners of late have slowly been staging events other than baseball at Safeco Field. The Beach Boys played there in 2008, followed by Paul McCartney in 2013. Billy Joel played Safeco in May 2016, and the Eagles were there in late September.
It’s worth noting the Eagles concert was produced as a joint venture between the Mariners and the Oak View Group (OVG) run by Tim Leiweke and longtime Eagles manager Irving Azoff. During the show, Mariners owner John Stanton visited with Leiweke inside the private suite OVG had booked for the evening.
With Leiweke trying to bring the NHL to Seattle and Stanton having already done a joint local venture with his company, it’s not too big a leap to envision an NHL outdoor game eventually being played at Safeco should this city get a franchise by 2020.
And testing it out with a WHL game first wouldn’t necessarily be a bad way to go.