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Hockey A Smashing Way To Open Arena

Just a suggestion: When Spokane has to build its next arena - and we’re bringing this up now lest it elude memory in 50 or 60 years - go ahead and book hockey as the opening act.

These guys play with sore throats.

Also with a few fresh stitches across the lower lip, if necessary.

And the sellout crowd of 10,400 that christened Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on Sunday evening didn’t seem to be mourning the absence of John Michael Whatzisname, the wayward troubadour who missed Saturday’s scheduled opening for the lack of a lozenge.

Give them this smashing new building and some smashing checks along the boards anytime.

Also give them swifter beer lines, please. But all in good time.

It’s no upset that assorted glitches and goblins must be exorcised from our new palace, but the biggest problem has been conquered.

The building - all $62 million of it - is up. It’s open. And, as unscientific surveys continued to show Sunday, it’s an unqualified hit.

Having the National Hockey League for an opening act didn’t hurt. A pair of goals by a Russian winger named Roman Oksiuta propelled the Vancouver Canucks to a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in your basic museum piece for exhibition hockey - peopled by veterans with training-camp legs and eager rookies outfitted in jersey numbers more common to the offensive line.

Some will stick, some will be shipped to Syracuse or Kansas City. Some may even wind up back in Kelowna, which means they’ll be back to visit all winter long.

Lucky them.

“This place is fabulous,” said the Sharks’ Ray Whitney. “You’ve got the finest junior hockey rink in all of Canada and the United States.”

Best of all, we didn’t have total strangers to open it.

The first sporting event in the new building was draw enough, but when Bobby Brett and the Spokane Chiefs contracted with the Sharks to play the exhibition, it was done with an eye on the past as much as toward the future.

Whitney and fellow Shark Pat Falloon were the stars of Spokane’s 1991 Memorial Cup champions - but never got to see the banner raised at the old Coliseum after San Jose plucked them in the draft after that season.

The Chiefs rectified that Sunday night.

With their teammates watching from the bench, Falloon and Whitney made a spotlight skate around the ice before the national anthems - tossing hats into the applauding crowd to the accompaniment of “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

The fireworks that preceded it were almost unnecessary.

“It feels strange being back and not in the old building - it’s kind of sad to see it go,” said Falloon. “That held a lot of memories for me. But this is a pretty nice arena.”

The two former Chiefs nearly manufactured some memories Sunday. But Vancouver goalie Kay Whitmore turned back point-blank scoring opportunities by both of them, and Whitney had a shot carom off the left post another time.

So the memories belonged to others.

Like Howard March, an 81-year-old Spokane man whose hockey history goes back to 1938 and the old ice arena near Cannon Park. He sat four rows from the top in section 205 on Sunday and couldn’t have been happier had his seat been up against the glass.

“You couldn’t see from up here in the old Coliseum,” he said. “This is a great seat. I’ve been waiting for this a long time - I voted for it every time they put it on the ballot. I’m just glad it finally got built.”

And Kevin Twohig, the building’s general manager, is just happy it’s finally open.

“The opening of the building tonight was truly a special moment - it gave me chills,” said Twohig. “Opening with the two former players being here, the great introduction, the fireworks - it was just really electric and fun.”

The fireworks will continue. Special openings are planned for all events in the coming month, culminating with the Utah Jazz-Seattle Sonics basketball exhibition.

Meanwhile, management will continue to finetune the facility. A few floor drains were finicky and temperature varied from place to place - “things you don’t find out until they’re tested under stress,” Twohig said.

Speaking of stress, nowhere was it greater than in the concession areas, where lines were backed up 30 or 40 deep between periods and even 10 and 15 deep as the game was being played.

“We’ve been driven in like a tent pole,” said David Hall, a supervisor in one area, “but we got the job done.”

The waits brought some complaints, but also some amusement.

“I’ve never seen a line for the men’s bathroom,” one woman marveled. “We ought to take a picture of this.”

As late as Sunday afternoon, workers were still tightening bolts on railings and touching up the paint on the section markers, but Twohig betrayed no nerves.

“I was confident the building would perform well and people would enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve been anxious just to get it open so we could find out how strong the experience would be.

“And what a great way to open. A concert would have been great, but this was obviously wonderful, too. Spokane should be very proud. It got a great building.”

And a night to remember.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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