Last spring, a season-ticket drive in Seattle – intended to gauge interest in a potential NHL expansion team – saw fans in the Emerald City commit to more than 30,000 tickets in just a few hours.
The response surprised many in the hockey world, even the potential team owners behind the campaign, with one saying at the time that he was “shell-shocked.”
One person who wasn’t surprised was former Surrey Eagles captain Kris Wilson, who grew up in the U.S. city, captained the BC Hockey League team to a Royal Bank Cup championship in 1998 and is still heavily involved in Seattle’s local minor-hockey community.
He couldn’t get tickets during that drive last March – “Didn’t get in there in time,” he laughed – but he’s still confident he’ll find a way to make it to a few games when the NHL’s newest expansion team hits the ice for the 2020/21 season.
A Seattle franchise was officially approved by the NHL’s board of governors at meetings Tuesday.
“It’s really big news today, obviously,” Wilson told Peace Arch News soon after the league made its announcement.
“Being in the hockey community here, there’s been a buzz about (the NHL) for quite a long time. People thought this would happen and were pretty confident that it would after that ticket drive… it was pretty amazing, 32,000 tickets in 2½ hours.
Some have questioned whether Seattle will be successful as a hockey market, though the city does have a long history with the sport. The Seattle Thunderbirds have been a staple of the Western Hockey League for years, as have the nearby Everett Silvertips. And a century ago – prior to the formation of the NHL – the Seattle Metropolitans became the first U.S. team to win the Stanley Cup, beating the National Hockey Association’s Montreal Canadiens in 1917.
Count Wilson among those who is confident an NHL team won’t just survive in Seattle, but thrive.
“I think it’s going to be huge, I really do. Right now, the game has grown so much already, especially since I was a kid playing in this area, and my uncles, too, who were hockey players back in the ’70s,” he explained.
“The people of Seattle, when they see the game in front of them… they’re going to become huge fans and really embrace the sport. I think it’s really going to take over and really create a new hockey buzz in this area.”
Wilson, 41, played four seasons for the Eagles in the mid-1990s. After graduating from the BCHL, he spent four years playing for NCAA Div. 3 University of Wisconsin Superior.
Since then, he’s also appeared in the movie Miracle – he played U.S. hockey player Phil Verchota in the film about the U.S. national team’s Miracle on Ice win in 1980 – and he is currently the skills co-ordinator for Seattle’s Sno-Kings Minor Hockey Association.
Though he’s already seen the sport grow in the decades he’s been involved, Wilson expects the new NHL team to have the same long-term effect in Seattle that it had in California in the 1990s, when Wayne Gretzky’s arrival saw a massive uptick in local interest in the NHL and hockey in general.
“There’s a lot of great athletes in the Greater Seattle area. You see a lot of football players and a lot of basketball players come out of here – guys drafted in the first rounds (of their sports) in the last 10, 15 years,” said Wilson, lives in nearby Bothell, Wash.
“I think in 15 to 20 years, you’ll see a surge of Seattle hockey players.”
One problem that will hinder the sport’s growth is a lack of ice sheets in the city and surrounding suburbs, he admits.
“Right now, we’re maxed out. Until we get 10 more sheets in the metro area, I don’t think we’ll see that huge boom, but we’ll still see a massive bump in interest – we’re already seeing it. Myself, being involved in minor hockey, I’ve seen it grow two-fold, three-fold already. Now, it’s really going to boom, I think.”
Though he’s excited at the prospect of being able to take his two young sons – aged two and four – to an NHL game in their hometown soon, Wilson said the NHL news has led him to spend a little time reminiscing about his own childhood playing a sport that, at the time, was still considered niche.
Wilson grew up in north Seattle, in a neighbourhood now called Shoreline, and he admits to still fostering a certain level of bewilderment that the new NHL’s team’s proposed practice facility is set to be built just a block or two away from his childhood home.
It’s a feeling he shares with his brother-in-law, Jonas, who grew up in the same neighbourhood and was a youth-league linemate and close friend of Wilson’s growing up. (They married sisters).
“For him and I, when they announced that the practice facility was going to go at Northgate (Mall), that was pretty crazy,” Wilson said. “I called him and he said, ‘Can you believe where we used to ride our bikes, now there’s going to be an NHL practice rink?
“For him and I, it’s pretty sentimental – that’s our neighbourhood.”
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