NHL Expansion Roundtable: Seattle

The Seattle Mariners recently saw their season come to an end. The Seahawks have already played the first three games of the season and are entering a bye week. Imagine if there was another professional team dominating sports talk radio.

Now, imagine that team is an NHL team.

Seattle has been the home of multiple professional hockey teams in the past, from the Metropolitans in the early 1900s to the Totems in the 1960s. Currently, the Thunderbirds, members of the Western Hockey League, are the hot hockey ticket in town for fans who want to catch any form of the North’s favorite sport.

The Thunderbirds are fantastic entertainment for any fan of the game. Quick feet, hard shots and a will to make it to the bigs make it a spectacle for any sports fan.

But it’s not the NHL.

That’s why I’ve compiled a group of four writers from across the NHL landscape to answer the question that is weighing on everyone’s minds: Is it plausible for the NHL to plot a team in Seattle? Let’s me our team:

It’s time to take a look at what these writers have to say about an NHL team residing in the same city limits as the Space Needle.

Seattle has not had a professional hockey team since the 1970s (the Seattle Totems). Would fans flock to games in Seattle?

Andy Eide (710 ESPN Seattle) – Seattle has a pretty long hockey history apart from the Metropolitans, who won the Stanley Cup in 1917. The city had a long run of professional hockey with the Totems, who played in the old Western Hockey League from 1958 to 1975, and were very popular. In 1974, the Totems got close to getting added to the NHL but the deal fell apart and eventually so did the Totems. Currently the Seattle region has two major junior teams — Seattle and Everett — as well as two more in the state. There are a lot of hockey fans here and the NHL routinely gets good television ratings. Most recently, the Winter Classic saw Seattle sport the highest television ratings in the Pacific Time Zone. The most remarkable aspect of those ratings is that it was only counting who was watching on NBC, when most cable packages in the Seattle area carry CBC — where most fans watch their hockey.

The Seattle Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
The Seattle Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Furthermore, the Greater Seattle Hockey League is one of the largest adult recreational hockey leagues in the country. Having a lot of hockey players can and will pay off in attendance, something Seattle has seen with soccer. The economy in Seattle is strong — there are people with money — and, of course, it rains in the winter, so folks are more than happy to go inside and watch hockey.

Ian Gooding (TodaysSlapshot.com) – I’ll start this off with a quote from Ian Furness of KJR Radio in Seattle, when asked a similar question: “It’s not Canada.” Having said that, Seattle probably has a greater hockey presence today than some non-traditional hockey markets had during the 1990s when the NHL expanded (teams like Florida and Phoenix come to mind). There are currently two WHL teams in greater Seattle: the Seattle Thunderbirds (who play their home games in nearby Kent), and the Everett Silvertips. Both teams draw between 4,000 and 5,000 fans per game, which are around the middle of the pack in the WHL. I don’t think a Seattle NHL team would sell out at 20,000 fans per game, but the greater Seattle market is large enough at 3.5 million (15th largest in the United States) to support mid-level NHL attendance numbers at around 17,000 fans per game.

Meesh Shanmugam (ThePensNation.com) – Fans would flock to the games…at first. As we’ve seen in professional sports, what’s new is usually exciting. Seattle still mourns the loss of its NBA team and is primed for a new winter team that can take the attention of Seattle Seahawks fans after the NFL season ends around January. How long can a new NHL team keep Seattle’s attention, though? When the Thrashers started in Atlanta (note: a smaller city than Seattle), attendance was phenomenal in the first season. After that first year, though, results mattered and the Thrashers watched their attendance drop immediately. There was a rise in attendance when the team made the playoffs, but poor results sent the fans away again and eventually sent the team away, too.

Seattle’s other teams have been a mixed bag as of late. The Seahawks are consistently selling out their stadium as one of the best home teams in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Mariners, who went 87-75 and missed the playoffs this year, filled only 53.2 percent of their capacity this season. That figure ranks 26th out of 30 in Major League Baseball. Seattle’s highest-level hockey team, the WHL’s Thunderbirds, were at 73.5 percent capacity last season. Fans will flock, but the key for potential management would be ensuring that they stay.

Dan Rice (TheHockeyWriters.com) – I’m sure at first fans would show up. Although, that newness usually wears off after about three years. Depending on if the team is successful, hard working, etc. will go a long way in determining the long-term viability of the franchise.

A large majority of people in Seattle are Vancouver Canucks fans, as it is their closest team. How do you think this will affect the Canucks fan base, if at all?

Would expansion to the Emerald City affect the Canucks' fan base? (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sport)
Would expansion to the Emerald City affect the Canucks’ fan base? (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sport)

Andy Eide (710 ESPN Seattle) – I don’t think the Canucks have to worry about their fan base. Even if everyone in the Seattle area turned on them, they’d be doing fine. There are a good number of Canucks fans in the Seattle area — Vancouver is about a two-hour drive from Seattle — so hockey fans can get up there to catch live games. If Seattle were to get an NHL team, those fans would most likely change their allegiances. This area can be provincial at times, especially when it comes to its sports franchises. The Canucks sweaters you see around town would quickly be replaced by Seattle sweaters.

NHL fans in Seattle are pretty diverse. If you go to one of the hockey bars here — and there are hockey bars — you will see fans of every NHL team. When you live in a region that does not have the NHL, people choose who to follow for a variety of reasons. Hopefully someday, they’ll all get to root for the home team.

Ian Gooding (TodaysSlapshot.com) – The Canucks’ fan base in Washington State is a very small fraction of what the Canucks’ fan base is in British Columbia. In fact, ticket prices for Canucks games are among the highest in the NHL, so there will probably be a pilgrimage of BC-based hockey fans that would trek to Seattle to watch lower-priced NHL games. This already happens in the Seattle sports market, where many Vancouverites attend Seahawks and Mariners games. With hockey being by far the No. 1 sport in Vancouver, people in greater Vancouver will make the 2-3 hour trip to Seattle to watch a game. But expect the Canucks to be largely unaffected by a team in Seattle.

Meesh Shanmugam (ThePensNation.com) – I don’t believe that the addition of a team in Seattle would affect the Canucks to a significant degree in the short-run. It’s difficult to imagine rabid Canucks fans jumping ship to a new team based on location. The change may occur over a generation though, as kids in the Seattle area grow up around their own hockey team and learn to love Seattle hockey… if their rabid Canucks’ parents allow that.

Dan Rice (TheHockeyWriters.com) – I don’t think it will affect it, really. You will have your local fans that will be proud to call a team their own, and some that will probably be fans of both; until there’s a playoff series, that is.

What would be the best team name for the franchise?

Andy Eide (710 ESPN Seattle) – A new NHL team would have some options in naming the team. They could go the historical route and re-boot the Metropolitans or the Totems. Most likely the team would select a new name. I’ve always been partial to the Seattle Sockeyes, but there has been some ground swell for the Seattle Kraken. I think most fans here won’t care what you name the team, as long as it is in the NHL.

Ian Gooding (TodaysSlapshot.com) – Any team name would need to pay homage to the Pacific Northwest. A search for hockey team names past and present in Seattle includes the Metropolitans, Totems, Breakers, and Thunderbirds. We already have an NHL division named after the only Seattle team to win a Stanley Cup (in 1917), so cross that one off the list. There are a few more possible names here, but personally I am partial to the name “Totems.” Plus they had a wicked logo.

The Seattle Totems logo
The Seattle Totems logo

Meesh Shanmugam (ThePensNation.com) – Starbucks, right? Seriously though, their previous professional hockey team was the Metropolitans, which is now an NHL division to the chagrin of many. The Seahawks, Sounders, Mariners, Storm, and Reign are all taken by Seattle’s current professional teams. Given that Seattle is nicknamed the Emerald City, I’ll keep it simple and say the Seattle Emeralds with a nice green color scheme.

Dan Rice (TheHockeyWriters.com) – That’s tough. I always liked the sound of Seattle Reign, even though I’m not a fan of names without the “S” at the end.

Just looking at the current NHL landscape, how would the divisions work out with Seattle and possibly Las Vegas joining the League?

Andy Eide (710 ESPN Seattle) – A Seattle team would have to play in the Pacific Division to set up the natural rivalry with Vancouver. That would also give you the potential of some Bay Area-Pacific Northwest hatred to boil up, the way it has with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. That would cause some issues with the Central Division, however. Adding Las Vegas to the Central doesn’t seem fair as they would have a grueling travel schedule. You could see something like Seattle and Las Vegas joining the Pacific with Calgary and Edmonton moving to the Central. There would have to be some juggling, for sure.

Ian Gooding (TodaysSlapshot.com) – Seattle would join the Pacific Division, giving the Canucks their first-ever natural geographic rival. I would also locate the Las Vegas team in the Pacific Division, given that Vegas is further west than Phoenix. The Arizona Coyotes would then be moved to the Central Division. An advantage of the NHL adding two more teams – one in Seattle and one in Las Vegas – would be that no Eastern Conference teams would need to move west, with eight teams in each division and 16 in each conference.

Meesh Shanmugam (ThePensNation.com) – Geographically, this would be the ideal scenario for the NHL to make the conferences even again. The East would remain the same and the West could add both Seattle and Las Vegas. The divisions would be problematic though, since both expansion cities would fit well with the Pacific Division. Ideally, Seattle and Las Vegas would join the Pacific to form rivalries with Vancouver and the entire southwest respectively, leaving Calgary and Edmonton as the odd group of two out. That’s not a group of two that should be broken up, though. Given the current rivalries and locations, I would then suggest moving Arizona over to the Central Division, which would unfortunately hurt their long-term survival to a degree.

Dan Rice (TheHockeyWriters.com) – Well there are already more teams in the East than in the West, so I would assume Seattle would join the Pacific Division, and Vegas would join the Central.

With mountains, lakes, forests and money, about the only thing Seattle doesn't have is the NHL and NBA - yet. Credit: Spmenic, at Wikimedia Commons.
With mountains, lakes, forests and money, about the only thing Seattle doesn’t have is the NHL and NBA – yet. Credit: Spmenic, at Wikimedia Commons.

Rumors are swirling that the NBA is looking to return to the Seattle area, as well. Could both the NHL and NBA succeed in Seattle if they returned around the same time?

Andy Eide (710 ESPN Seattle) – Absolutely, they could survive. The region has grown and when you think of the population, you are looking at more than just Seattle proper. King County and the Puget Sound region are quite populous, and people have money. With Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon and other large corporations headquartered in Seattle, there are plenty of potential corporate sponsors to go around. There are hockey fans here and many other sports fans that would be curious and quickly converted if there was a team. On top of everything else, there are still a lot of people who are not fond of the NBA and how they feel the league has slighted Seattle at every turn. That’s probably a small minority of sports fans, but it would be interesting to see how that might influence ticket purchasing choices.

Ian Gooding (TodaysSlapshot.com) – As much as I am more of a hockey fan than a basketball fan, I will say this: the Seattle market deserves to have its NBA team back more than it needs the NHL. If you don’t believe me, watch the outstanding documentary Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team. Part of receiving either team, however, rests on a new building. The Key Arena, the now-vacant former home of the SuperSonics and Thunderbirds, was built in 1962 and only holds 15,000 for hockey. Key Arena could work as a temporary hockey building, but a major reason that the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City was that the old, small building did not suffice for the NBA.

An NHL team would have a more difficult time competing for Seattle’s sports dollar if there were also an NBA team with which to compete. Seattle is one of the more affluent cities in the United States, but an NHL team would also need to compete with not only an NBA team at roughly the same time of year, but also the Seahawks in the fall and winter and the Mariners in the spring. If both the NHL and the NBA were to arrive, Seattle should then be considered to have not four, but five major sports teams, because the Sounders draw over 40,000 fans per game – by far the largest average attendance in the MLS.

A Seattle NHL team would be in tough to succeed, but one more intangible is that Seattle is a great sports town that is very supportive of its teams – win or lose. The previously mentioned Sounders’ attendance proves this, as does the Seahawks, who are known for their loud stadium, driven by the support of the “12th chance – to succeed, but there will be some tough competition all around. Man.” Overall, Seattle has a good chance – but not a great

Meesh Shanmugam (ThePensNation.com) – Going back to my answer about fans flocking to the game, it all depends on performance. Seattle is a big enough market to theoretically handle both the NBA and NHL returning at the same time. If both teams are playing well, I have no doubt they would succeed in Seattle. The question will always be what happens if one or both teams falter in the standings for a lengthy period of time. A strong ownership group and strong hockey management team is a must in order to not repeat the Atlanta failure. I would expect an early success, though.

Dan Rice (TheHockeyWriters.com) – I think they could both succeed. I also think it would be a good idea for them both to use the same color scheme – the same scheme that the old Seattle Supersonics had of yellow, green and white. I always thought it was cool that the three pro teams in Pittsburgh use the same colors.

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Check out the rest of this four-part series!

Quebec City
Las Vegas
Seattle
Toronto