Lacing up his skates in the visiting locker room on Dec. 10, a short jaunt away from the state-of-the-art ice rink inside of Climate Pledge Arena, Spokane’s own Kailer Yamamoto relished the moment.
After skating at Eagles Ice Arena, the Spokane Arena and rinks throughout Washington during his Western Hockey League days, Yamamoto was hours away from his first regular-season NHL action in his home state.
Hopping onto the ice for a morning skate, the Spokane native twisted and turned around the other Oilers as he fired shots toward goal alongside fellow Spokane native Derek Ryan.
Similarly undersized by NHL terms, Ryan and Yamamoto both were Spokane Chiefs who took different paths to Edmonton’s two December games against the Kraken.
Ryan, 34, spent four years with the Chiefs but didn’t receive a call on any NHL draft night.
He moved north of the border to play for the Alberta Golden Bears.
In 2011, he traveled overseas to play three seasons in Austria and a year in Sweden. In 2015, he made his NHL debut for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Yamamoto, 23, was drafted in the first round, 22nd overall, by Edmonton in 2017.
He made his NHL debut that October.
Eleven years apart in age, but only two years apart in NHL service time – they now both suit up in the same colors again.
“It’s pretty unexpected, for sure,” Ryan said. “Same NHL team from a small hockey community in Spokane. It’s something that we’re enjoying. And I’m sure we’ll look back on a few decades and appreciate it even more.”
The two were training during the offseason while both were free agents – Ryan unrestricted and Yamamoto restricted.
The news broke while Yamamoto was in Hawaii, but as soon as he heard, he sent Ryan a text.
“It’s been awesome to see him grow over the last few seasons,” Ryan said of Yamamoto. “Working out with him and now see him grow a little more close up while being on the same team. He’s maturing. He’s obviously a young guy, figuring out what it takes to stay in this league and be a star and I think that it’s fun to see.”
Ryan resides in north Spokane during the offseason, where he and his family built a house a few years ago.
Yamamoto also spends his offseason in Spokane at his parents’ residence where he and his brother Keanu get to spend plenty of time together. Keanu attends McGill University in Montreal, where he plays hockey for the Redbirds.
While the two hang out during the summer, hockey talk is rarely spewed. It is a time for decompression after their grueling seasons.
“He’s just been a really good brother, a really good older brother who I definitely cherish,” Kailer said.
All four Yamamotos will meet up during the season for the first time in a couple of years when Edmonton heads to Montreal at the end of January to play the Canadiens.
Climate Pledge Arena was built with the idea that it would be one of the most desirable NHL arenas in the country and that someday it could be a world-class NBA arena – if the NBA decides to return to Seattle.
The Oak View Group (OVG) and CEO Tim Leiweke own a 51% share of Climate Pledge. OVG and its partners funded the entire $1.15 billion project – 92% higher than the initial estimation. $50 million was used for NBA-specific upgrades.
Yamamoto and Ryan both were awed by the new arena, from top to bottom.
“Obviously, doesn’t look anything like it did,” Ryan said. “I remember it being pretty dark and not loving it too much, so it has a little different vibe now and it’s better.”
The only thing that remains from the old KeyArena is the historical landmarked roof, remnants from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
“Their rink is phenomenal, it might be one of the best rinks I’ve seen in the National Hockey League,” Yamamoto said. “It’s a beautiful place, even for the visiting room. Some rinks are really nice, but the visiting room is not the best, but their visitor room was unbelievable, probably the best one I’ve seen. And the atmosphere was awesome. I mean Seattle fans are wild as it is.”
Seattle has a long history with hockey.
The Seattle Metropolitans played for nine seasons (1915-1924) in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, amassing the most wins in the league during that span, including five league titles. They made the Stanley Cup three times, winning it in 1917. That championship was the first Stanley Cup win by an American team.
“Having an NHL team is great for not only Seattle but where I’m from in Spokane and Pacific Northwest in general are really excited about it,” Ryan said. “Cool experience to come check out the rink for the first time.”
Seeing the building for the first time made the experience real for Yamamoto and Ryan. After almost a century of no professional hockey, the region has embraced the Kraken as much as it celebrated the expansion Seahawks and Mariners in 1976 and 1977, respectively.
“I truly think they’ve been dying for a team over the past couple of years,” Yamamoto said. “And I think it’s a really good hockey market. I think the hockey in the Northwest is definitely going to flourish and it’s going to be really good for them.”
After Seattle was awarded an NHL franchise officially in 2018, the opportunity for Ryan and Yamamoto to play in front of family and friends in Seattle became a possibility.
It was just a matter of when.
Once the NHL schedule was released on July 22 featuring the Kraken for the first time, the Oilers’ trip to Seattle was one Yamamoto emphasized.
The chance to make it a spectacle was an easy call for Kailer’s parents, LeAnn and Russ.
For the first trip to Seattle, his parents sat in the second row, decked out in Kailer’s No. 56. Kailer didn’t know where his parents were sitting, but it helps that Edmonton’s orange stuck out against the blue and white backdrop of the Kraken colors.
Kailer, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, among other Oilers, spotted them.
This was the first time LeAnn and Russ sat that close to the ice for an NHL game.
They weren’t the only people in attendance for the youngest Yamamoto. His parents estimated around 50 people made the jaunt to Seattle to see Yamamoto gliding around the ice. The added attendance for Yamamoto weighed in the back of his mind, but as a professional athlete, he couldn’t measure this game any different than the rest. At the end of the day, it is just another game.
“You want to do well, obviously, in front of your friends and family, especially when there’s a lot of them,” he said. “I want to say the only game that really I feel (the added pressure) is Battle of Alberta.”
That is the game between the Oilers and the Calgary Flames, one of the more aggressive rivalries in the sport.
Yamamoto had over 10 friends, his parents had 20 or so in their group, a few former coaches and then a few other friends were scattered around the arena.
Most of his buddies are involved in hockey, but five of his longtime school friends from Spokane were there.
One of the family friends in attendance was Bill O’Brien, or Uncle Bill, as the Yamamoto kids call him. He has been close to the family for 30 years. It was his first NHL game.
While Yamamoto has played twice in Seattle against the Kraken, he also played the expansion team once in the preseason.
The Kraken had a preseason tour traveling to cities around the state. One of their stops was Everett, where they hosted Edmonton on Oct. 1.
That game allowed Yamamoto’s grandparents to witness their grandson on the ice as a professional for the first time.
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