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Steve Christilaw: Our region has an affinity for hockey

We might not be as avid as our neighbors north of the border, but we have always loved our hockey here in the upper left-hand corner of the country.

We might not be able to catch Don Cherry’s cranky commentary, and we might not get Hockey Night in Canada on our cable lineup, but that doesn’t keep a solid core of Spokane hockey fans from our beloved game.

Besides, we have our own connection with Cherry, the longtime, incredibly cantankerous, flamboyant, outspoken hockey commentator who has been a fixture on the aforementioned Canadian broadcast for more than three decades.

Cherry played only one game in the NHL (with the Boston Bruins), which puts his time with the Spokane Comets significantly higher on his playing resume.

Be they the Jets, the Flyers, the Chiefs or the Comets, Spokane has had a hockey team for longer than any of us can remember. And we’ve enjoyed having some of the greats of the game play in a Spokane sweater – Emile Francis, Seth Martin, Eddie Johnston and Cesare Maniago to name but a few.

My introduction to hockey was the Spokane Jets, which we began following in the 1960s – before the Los Angeles Kings made their debut in the NHL in 1967-68 and Vancouver moved from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association to the NHL in 1970.

I wasn’t around to see the legendary exhibition game in 1959, when Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings played the Spokane Comets and Mr. Hockey scored a one-handed goal while blocking off a defenseman with the other. OK, I was around. But I was busy that day being a 2-year-old.

But I was around when the Spokane Jets became the first U.S. based hockey team to win the senior men’s championship, the Allan Cup, in the 1969-70 season.

There were plenty of nights in the old Boone Street Barn after that, cheering on Tom Hodges and the Spokane Jets. Except when they were the Spokane Flyers. We had season tickets for many of those seasons. And when the team hit the road, there was the voice of Tom Mableson on the radio.

It was always interesting around our house on a Saturday night before a home game. We had two season tickets and my mom, and my brother and I, would draw lots to see which of us would go to the game. The loser went, but that’s beside the point.

I remember watching coaches Colin Kilburn and Al Rollins pace behind the bench, calling out line changes. I thought all coaches should wear a suit and tie.

Hodges was Spokane hockey’s Golden Boy. And he was everyone’s favorite player.

Except mine. Oh, I admired Hodges. He was flashy. He was an impressive goal scorer. But I was more of a fan of players like George Talotti, the tough defenseman who handled the other team’s Tom Hodges-wannabe.

I liked guys like Buddy Bodman, who played hard and never took a shift off. And I wanted to have a slapshot like Jim Chow.

And you had to be in the Coliseum to watch how Spokane treated the likes of Cranbrook goalkeeper Leo Karachi or Don Dirk, the tough-guy we called “The Goon from Saskatoon.” Fans jeered Dirk right up until he became a hometown favorite.

Those great rivalries still bring back memories. The Cranbrook Royals. The Kimberly Dynamiters. The Nelson Maple Leafs. The Trail Smoke Eaters.

You can argue that we have a much better brand of hockey in town now, with the Western Hockey League and the Spokane Chiefs. It’s definitely younger.

In fact, it’s an easy argument to make.

These players are younger, faster and better than the old-time Jets. Or Comets. Or Flyers. And a lot of them have gone on to play some excellent hockey in the NHL.

As an occasional hockey writer, I’ve enjoyed covering some exceptional players who are now in the NHL. Tyler Johnson. Jared Spurgeon. Derek Ryan. Kailer Yamamoto.

I’ve even bumped into singer-songwriter Rod Stewart a time or two at a Chiefs game while his son, Liam, played here. Even met his mom, former supermodel and actress Rachel Hunter.

That makes me especially happy to see the NHL finally, FINALLY returning professional hockey to Seattle for the 2021-22 season.

It’s a hockey trivia staple – Seattle had never boasted an NHL franchise, but it already won a Stanley Cup (Take that Las Vegas Golden Knights). The Seattle Metropolitans were the first U.S. based team to win Lord Stanley’s Cup in 1917. And the Seattle Totems were part of the professional Western Hockey League for years, although attending a Totems game didn’t have the same hometown feel of catching a Jets game.

Seattle, too, has a stealth hockey fan base. Stat guru Nate Silver has said the Puget Sound has the largest base of avid hockey fans of any area currently without an NHL franchise.

So I’m saving up for a ticket to see a game at some point in 2021-22. Tickets will be pricey, so I’m starting early in hopes that compound interest can put me over the top by the start of the season.

Probably won’t find a ticket for those early Seattle-Vancouver games. Lots of Canucks fans will drive down for any loose tickets, you can be sure. And I’m sure L.A. and San Jose will be popular. I’m sure Washington Huskies fans will put aside their disdain and show up to see the (Anaheim) Ducks.

NHL games generally have the highest ticket prices in any sport, in part because the league doesn’t have anything close to the kinds of television contract the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball has.

Companies that track such things say that the secondary market (StubHub, et al) is up there. If you want to take in a game in Las Vegas, it will cost you $271 per ticket. In Toronto? $317 U.S. If one of the Original Six teams (Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and the New York Rangers) is in town for a game, the price goes up because of increased demand.

But why wait?

There are some future players for the 2021-22 season playing right now in the WHL, and they will be skating in the Arena at every Chiefs home game.

Think of it as a scouting mission. Consider it your investment in being an informed NHL fan.

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