The WHL Has Deep & Rich American Roots

Americans have a tendency to forget that there is more than just the NHL, AHL, and the NCAA in the United States. We hear rumors of other leagues existing — the KHL, the SHL, and the SM-Liiga, for instance, but all of these are overseas and out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. However, it isn’t until the annual NHL Entry Level Draft that the average American remembers there’s another league in this country that contributes the majority of current NHL players.

Mathew Barzal
(Marissa Baecker/ Mathew Barzal is one of the WHL’s premier playmakers and the Seattle Thunderbirds have to hope he’s healthy heading into the weekend.

Heck, the average beer league garners more attention than the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), but the CHL is one of the most prominent leagues in the world. On their website, the CHL describes itself as,

The Canadian Hockey League is the world’s largest development hockey league with 52 Canadian and eight American teams participating in the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League. CHL players graduate from high school at a rate higher than the Canadian national average. Last season, more than nine million fans attended CHL games in the regular season, playoffs and at the Memorial Cup Presented by Kia. The CHL supplies more players to the National Hockey League and U SPORTS than any other league.

It just so happens that four (and a half) of these eight American teams are in the state of Washington as part of the Western Hockey League (WHL). The WHL is a sibling league to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). The three of these leagues make up the entirety of the CHL and collectively contributed 50.06% of the 2018-19 NHL players.

11.42%J20 SuperElit94
5.59%Jr. A SM-Liiga46
4.50%Czech U2037
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Highly competitive hockey is already a huge part of Washington’s sports scene. It’s no wonder that the Seattle Kraken already have a waitlist for their season tickets. It’s not that they’ve been starved of hockey, it’s that they’re hungry for more!

Here’s a look at the five teams that make up the U.S. Division of the WHL and their most notable alumni:

Seattle Thunderbirds

  • Kent, WA, USA
  • Founded: 1971
  • Arena: ShoWare Center
  • 2019-20 Record: GP: 63 W: 24 L: 32 OTL: 4 SOL: 3 PTS: 55
  • 2019-20 Average Attendance: 4,736
  • Estimated Drive Time from Kent to Seattle: 35 min (20.3 miles)

A Brief History:
The Seattle Thunderbirds was initially founded in 1971 as the Vancouver Nats as part of the Western Canadian Hockey League. The team was then moved to Kamloops, BC, and renamed the Chiefs. The team would make its way to Seattle in 1977 as the Breakers before changing their name to the Thunderbirds after the 1984-85 season.

The team has appeared in the Memorial Cup twice, but has yet to walk away with the coveted trophy.

Recent Draft Selections:

Tyrel BauerD2020Winnipeg6164
Matthew RempeC2020NY Rangers6165
Dillon HamaliukL2019San Jose255
Henry RybinskiR2019Florida5136
Roddy RossG2019Philadelphia6169
Matthew WedmanC2019Florida7199
Jarret TyszkaD2017Montreal5149

Active NHL Alumni:
Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear, Brenden Dillon, Shea Theodore, Patrick Marleau, Nate Thompson, Alexander True, Keegan Kolesar, Calvin Pickard

Notable Retired Alumni:
Thomas Hickey, Brendan Witt, Petr Nedved, Chris Joseph, Turner Stevenson, Glenn Anderson, Ken Danekyo, Chris Osgood, Brooks Laich

Spokane Chiefs

  • Spokane, WA, USA
  • Founded: 1982
  • Arena: Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena
  • 2019-20 Record: GP: 64 W: 41 L: 18 OTL: 4 SOL: 1 PTS: 87
  • 2019-20 Average Attendance: 5,709
  • Estimated Drive Time from Spokane to Seattle: 4 hr 25 min (281 miles)

A Brief History:
Formerly the Kelowna Wings from 1982 to 1985, the team moved to Spokane and officially joined the WHL as the Chiefs prior to the 1985-86 season. They replaced the previously WHL team the Spokane Flyers which had been in the league from 1980 to 1982. The Chiefs hosted the first-ever outdoor game in WHL history on Jan. 15, 2011.

The Chiefs have appeared in the Memorial Cup three times and won the championship twice; once in 1991 and most recently in 2008.

Recent Draft Selections:

Jack FinleyC2020Tampa Bay257
Bear HughesC2020Washington5148
Adam BeckmanL2019Nubbesota375
Ty SmithD2018New Jersey117
Filip KralD2018Toronto5149
Kailer YamamotoR2017Edmonton122
Jaret Anderson-DolanC2017Los Angeles241

Active NHL Alumni:
Mike Babcock*, Michael Grabner, Tyler Johnson, Derek Ryan, Jared Spurgeon, Kailer Yamamoto,

Notable Retired Alumni:
Jared Cowen, Bryan McCabe, Ray Whitney, Valeri Bure, Dustin Tokarski, Justin Falk, Trevor Kidd, Jan Hrdina, Jason LaBarbera, Kurt Sauer, Pat Falloon, Jon Klemm

*Denotes coach.

Everett Silvertips

  • Everett, WA, USA
  • Founded: 2003
  • Arena: Angel of the Winds Arena
  • 2019-20 Record: GP: 63 W: 46 L: 13 OTL: 3 SOL: 1 PTS: 96
  • 2019-20 Average Attendance: 5,730
  • Estimated Drive Time from Everett to Seattle: 37 min (28.8 miles)

A Brief History:
The youngest of the five U.S. Division franchises, the Silvertips joined the WHL as an expansion franchise in 2001 and officially joined the league to play in the 2003-04 season. In their inaugural season, the Silvertips won the U.S. Division and would advance to the WHL Championship before falling to the Medicine Hat Tigers. The team wouldn’t return to the WHL finals until the 2017-18 season where they would fall to the Swift Current Broncos.

The Silvertips have yet to appear in the Memorial Cup.

Recent Draft Selections:

Gage ConcalvesC2020Tampa Bay262
Kasper PuutioD2020Florida5153
Ronan SeeleyD2020Carolina7208
Gianni FairbrotherD2019Montreal377
Dustin WolfG2019Calgary7214
Connor DewarC2018Minnesota392
Riley SutterR2018Washington393
Wyatte WylieD2018Philadelphia5127

Active NHL Alumni:
Carter Hart, Ryan Murray, Radko Gudas

Notable Retired Alumni:
Peter Mueller, Mirco Mueller, Ivan Baranka, Zach Hamill, Byron Froese

Tri-City Americans

  • Kennewick, WA, USA
  • Founded: 1966
  • Arena: Toyota Center
  • 2019-20 Record: GP: 63 W: 17 L: 40 OTL: 4 SOL: 2 PTS: 40
  • 2019-20 Average Attendance: 3,729
  • Estimated Drive Time from Kennewick to Seattle: 3 hr 33 min (222 miles)

A Brief History:
The Tri-City Americans are technically an original franchise in WHL. The team began in 1966 as the Calgary Buffaloes in the then-named Canadian Major Junior Hockey League. A year later, the Buffaloes became the Centennials. The club remained as the Centennials until the team moved to Billings as the Bighorns in 1977. After five seasons as the Bighorns, the team again moved and became the Nanaimo Islanders for only the 1982-83 season. The Islanders quickly evolved into the New Westminster Bruins from 1983 until 1988 before finally making it to Tri-City.

Despite the club’s illustrious history, Tri-City, under any name, has yet to appear in the Memorial Cup.

In 1989, goaltender Olaf Kolzig became the first netminder in WHL history to score a goal. Fittingly, he did it against the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Recent Draft Selections:

Sasha MualaR2019Colorado5140
Michael RasmussenC2017Detroit19
Juuso ValimakiD2017Calgary116
Morgan GeekieC2017Carolina367
Kyle OlsonR2017Anaheim4122

Active NHL Alumni:
Carey Price, Brandon Carlo, Michael Rasmussen

Notable Alumni:
Scott Gomez, Olaf Kolzig, Sheldon Souray, Daymond Langkow, Stu Barnes, Bill Lindsay, Brian Boucher, Ronald Petrovicky, Clayton Stoner, Todd Simpson

Portland Winterhawks

  • Portland, OR, USA
  • Founded: 1951 (WCHL)
  • Arena: Veterans Memorial Coliseum
  • 2019-20 Record: GP: 63 W: 45 L: 11 OTL: 3 SOL: 4 PTS: 97
  • 2019-20 Average Attendance: 5,540
  • Estimated Drive Time from Portland to Seattle: 2 hr 52 min (174 miles)
Portland Winterhawks

A Brief History:
When we said four and a half teams were in Washington, the Portland Winterhawks were the half. Rounding out the U.S. Division of the WHL, Portland has birthed a long lineage of successful careers.

Initially founded in 1951 as part of the WCHL, the Winterhawks began as the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Oil Kings would be listed as one of the original seven franchises in the then Canadian Major Junior League (the league that would become the WHL in 1978). The team would move to Portland in 1976 and don the name Winterhawks from then on.

Portland has made it to the Memorial Cup a remarkable five times since 1982 and has walked away winners twice; first in 1983 and then again in 1998.

Edmonton would receive a WHL expansion team in 2006 and revive the Oil Kings.

Recent Draft Selections:

Seth JarvisC2020Carolina113
Cross HanasL2020Detroit255
Jaydon DureauL2020Tampa Bay5147
John LudvigD2019Florida369
Reece NewkirkC2019NY Islanders5147
Cody GlassC2017Vegas16
Henri JokiharjuD2017Chicago129
Brendan De JongD2017Carolina6166
Skyler McKenzieL2017Winnipeg7198

Active NHL Alumni:
Seth Jones, Braydon Coburn, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Johansen, Cody McLeod, Nino Niederreiter, Luca Sbisa, Matthew Dumba, Matthew Sceviour, Sven Baertschi, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Derrick Pouliot

Notable Retired Alumni:
Mark Messier, Glen Wesley, Marian Hossa, Ray Ferraro, Ray Babych, Andrew Ference, Keith Brown, Steve Konowalchuk, Cam Neely, Paul Gaustad, Marcel Hossa, Byron Dafoe

A Leg Up

When it comes to drafting, Seattle will have an advantage over most other clubs. They will have one of the most competitive leagues right in their backyard. It’ll be much like the Boston Bruins drafting players from the surrounding NCAA programs — Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, Maine, etc.

The Kraken will be able to utilize the Thunderbirds, Chiefs, Winterhawks, Americans, and Silvertips as feeder-teams essentially. They’ll have a finger to the pulse in player development. How interesting will it be to see WHL foes as NHL linemates?

Additionally, with the help of simple addition, one can quickly see that over 25,000 fans attend Washington hockey on an almost nightly basis already. That’s more than any NHL team in 2019-20. Granted, Climate Pledge Arena is expected to only be able to hold 17,400 fans, but regardless the Seattle Kraken should have no problem cultivating a nightly audience. It won’t be an Atlanta Thrashers-type situation where the team is struggling to wrestle up an audience.

Climate Pledge Arena will be rocking from night one and a large part of that will be due to the WHL and the loyal hockey culture that exists because of it. So many great NHL players have passed through Washington and we can expect a few more to follow.