The arrival of the NHL in Seattle is expected to boost fan support for the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team as well as grow youth leagues in town and in the region.
Seattle will begin NHL play in 2021 at a rebuilt KeyArena at Seattle Center. The team doesn’t have a nickname yet. But team ownership and staff continue to meet with T-Birds staff.
“It’s going to be a very good thing,” Seattle T-Birds Vice-President Colin Campbell said. “We’ve been meeting every three or four weeks with them on different promotional things we are going to be doing with them this coming hockey year but also in the future.”
Campbell updated the Public Facilities District Board, which helps oversee the accesso ShoWare Center, at its July meeting. The T-Birds are the anchor tenant of the ShoWare Center.
As a member of the Western Hockey League, the T-Birds won’t have direct ties with the new NHL team as far as players are concerned. But the WHL does develop players who earn NHL contracts. The WHL features players ages 16 to 20.
Despite the indirect relationship with players, when it comes to promotion of junior and youth hockey, NHL Seattle is on board.
“Their mantra of growing hockey in the area is something they are going to live up to and we are going to be partnering with them and help them do those things,” Campbell said.
NHL Seattle plans to work with the five U.S.-based WHL teams in Kent, Everett, Tri-Cities, Spokane and Portland to grow hockey in the Pacific Northwest, Campbell said.
“We are very excited about the opportunities to be working with them,” Campbell said. “They are doing things first class and we have the ability to ride their coattails.”
With much higher ticket prices to attend NHL games versus WHL games, Campbell expects parents will bring kids to T-Birds games to learn about hockey.
“You look at their pricing structure. …we are going to be the starting point for kids to watch hockey,” he said. “It’s going to create an opportunity we haven’t had before.”
The NHL runs a Learn to Play program in hockey cities that allows young children to experience the sport over several weekly sessions. The NHL provides the equipment that kids get to keep. Fees vary by teams and scholarships are available for those who cannot afford the fees.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stressed the importance of youth hockey during a summit two years ago in New York with the commissioners of the other three major sports.
“We’ve never seen more youth participation than we’re having now,” Bettman said, according to the NHL website. “The registrations of hockey players, young players with USA Hockey is at an all-time high. They say for every player, you get 3.1 fans, and our fan base continues to grow. We played at 95 percent of capacity in the regular season, more than 100 percent of capacity in the playoffs, a testament to standing room, that’s how you do that. But we have enormous opportunities.”
Campbell said the growth of youth hockey in the region has been limited by a lack of places to play, but that is changing.
Kent Valley Ice Centre has looked into adding a second sheet of ice. The rink is home to the Kent Valley Hockey Association, which runs a youth program that includes a learn to play program.
The Kirkland-based Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association announced plans earlier this year to partner with a private developer to build a two-ice-sheet arena by summer 2020 in Snoqualmie. Tacoma Twin Rinks is adding a second ice sheet later this year.
“Youth hockey programs are growing for males and females and they (NHL Seattle) want to grow it at all levels,” Campbell said.
In a few years, Campbell predicts the number of youth hockey players in the region to be much higher.
“It’s going to take time,” Campbell said. “It’s been limited growth because of the number of ice sheets. When you flood it all at once it could dilute growth a bit, but it will take off.”