In recent years, the Seattle has grown famous for its dedicated fans. The raucous 12th man turns up the volume at Seahawks games. Disgruntled Sonics fans still make their presence known at NBA games and rallies. And the rowdy chants from the crowd at Sounders games always provide an international feel.
The potential presented by sports fans in this area has not gone unnoticed. In the past year, top executives have dubbed the city of Seattle as a likely destination for a National Hockey League (NHL) franchise.
While Seattle is clearly the frontrunner, they are not alone in wanting a team. Las Vegas, Kansas City and Quebec City all have been named as interested cities as well.
John Barr, a Seattle resident who runs the NHL to Seattle blog believes Seattle could quickly evolve into a hockey hotbed. As a former resident of California, Barr witnessed first-hand the formation of the San Jose Sharks and sees the potential an NHL team has to transform the dynamics of a city.
“We’re right at the hockey demographic up here,” says Barr. “I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised about how amazing hockey is. The game has a much faster pace than other sports.”
When Chris Hansen proposed his arena plan to the city in 2012, the return of the Sonics was his main selling point. But after plans to relocate the Sacramento Kings to Seattle fell through last year, it became apparent that hockey was likely to land here before an NBA team would.
“The NHL averages more in attendance [than the NBA] right now,” said Barr. “So it is likely less of a risk.”
The proposed SoDo arena that would host the team now awaits the final draft of the environmental impact study. With a completion date set in March, the study will likely determine if the city is willing to go forward in pursuing a team in either sport. If approved, Seattle could potentially have a team ready for the 2015-2016 NHL season.
Some wonder if hockey could ever be successful in this market that has so many sports already. But this would not be the first city to attract teams in all the major sports, and it likely will not be the last.
Seattle has certainly shown that it can embrace an international sport with its support of the Seattle Sounders.
“The Sounders have shown what a new team can do here,” said Barr. “[Their] fan base showcases what an amazing fan base Seattle can be. It gives me hope for an NHL team here.”
Much like with soccer, a hockey team would feature rosters loaded with foreign-born players — 52 percent of NHL players are Canadian, with many others hailing from Northern and Eastern Europe. In a city as globally-oriented, and as close to the border as Seattle is, that may be a big bonus.
That close proximity to Canada could be a key to hockey’s growth in the Seattle market for other reasons too. Canadians may be willing to come south in order to see a professional hockey game at a reduced price. According to Forbes, six of the seven Canadian-based NHL teams currently rank in the top ten in highest ticket prices. Vancouver, Seattle’s closest hockey team, has the fifth highest average price at $265 on average for a game. While Seattle wouldn’t come into the league with the lowest prices, it would likely have cheaper tickets than Vancouver by a pretty good margin.
“There are a lot of Canadians here, but I like to think we can stand on our own,” said Barr. “The rivalry with Vancouver will help.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman seems to agree about the rivalry. During the Heritage Classic between Vancouver and Ottawa earlier this month he said that “it’d probably be pretty fun for Canucks to have a legitimate geographic rival” in reference to a Seattle franchise.
Recently, a 34-member group of sports, political and business representatives went on a 24-hour trade mission to Vancouver from Seattle to take in a Canucks game. Seattle representatives have begun to take the thought of an NHL franchise seriously as the league is rumored to be awarding a letter of intent to one of the three possible ownership groups for the hockey team in the coming weeks.
And Seattle already has the beginnings of a good hockey culture in the area. The Seattle Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips – members of the Western Hockey League (WHL) – both play within 45 minutes of the city.
While both teams are major-junior level, a level that features 16 to 20 year old players, they both sit in the top half of attendance in the WHL.
Recently, Seattle has also seen another first for its hockey fan base; a hockey-specific bar opened in Seattle in late 2012 and has attracted plenty of patrons since.
The Angry Beaver brings a strong Canadian influence, offering its customers Canadian beers and dishes like poutine. Hockey jerseys adorn the walls as decorations, letting everyone who visits know what the main focus of the bar is.
“Without a team up here, it’s hard to know who’s a hockey fan because everyone is from different places,” said Barr. “On game nights the Angry Beaver is absolutely packed. There are hockey fans from all over in the area.”
The NHL has noticed the evolving fan base in Seattle. Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, made it clear that he wanted to push for Seattle expansion for the 2014-15 season last July. Though that mark will likely be missed due to arena delays, there a lot of hope for a team in our city in the near future.