A new era of hockey is about to begin in Washington state.
Professional hockey returns to the Pacific Northwest at 6 p.m. Sunday when the puck drops on the NHL exhibition game between the Seattle Kraken and the Vancouver Canucks at the Spokane Arena.
The history of hockey in Washington is long and storied. Most hockey fans know the Seattle Metropolitans were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, the championship trophy of the National Hockey League.
Yet hockey doesn’t outrank football, basketball, baseball or even soccer for U.S. sports fans.
“We’re putting a tremendous amount of work – from leadership at the top on down, everyone in the organization – into helping the entire hockey community thrive throughout the state and the region,” said Kyle Boyd, the Kraken’s director of youth and community development. “It says a lot about the values of the organization.”
One local hockey fan already sees a groundswell of fandom for the Kraken.
“I cannot believe how much Kraken stuff I see around,” said Luke Damskow, community development director for Spokane Youth Hockey. “It’s all over the place. My kids are all about the team already. They’re going to be huge.”
Tickets for the preseason game sold out in less than 45 minutes.
A night on the town
Spokane’s hockey history dates to the early 1900s when the city built its first indoor ice rink, the Spokane Amateur Athletic Club. Ten years later in 1916, Canadian legend Lester Patrick moved the Victoria Aristocrats to the Lilac City to play a 12-game schedule in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.
The move coincided with hockey gaining traction throughout the Pacific Northwest, highlighted by the Metropolitans’ 1917 victory.
“Had Spokane had a better team with Lester Patrick, we would have been the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, not Seattle,” contends local hockey historian Paul Delaney.
The game hit a lull through the Depression era, followed by World War II, but picked up steam when Roy McBride “came to town,” said Delaney, who recounts Spokane’s hockey history in his 2001 book, “Saturday Nights Were Special.”
McBride was a key player in the early success of the Gus Bouten-led Spokane Flyers, a team that won the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States championship in 1948-49.
Through the decades there were four Allan Cup wins (kind of a big deal for a U.S. team to win the Canadian senior amateur championship), Savage Cups, Patton Cups, construction of the Coliseum, good teams, great teams and bad teams.
Through it all, Spokane loved its hockey.
“At one time,” Delaney said, “the hockey culture was insanely rabid.”
Players like Charlie Goodwin, Jr., Don Scherza and Tom Hodges lived and worked in the city. The fans had one-on-one encounters with the players they loved to watch on the ice.
“The guys on the team were your next-door neighbors,” Delaney said. “Everybody knew them. They came here to play hockey, work in the community and make a home. It helped grow the interest in the game.”
Delaney was a young boy when he moved here in 1958. His mom would shove a couple of dollars into his hand every Saturday night and send him off to the hockey rink. It was enough for the 50-cent admission and a couple of hot dogs and sodas.
He recalls the “glory days” when hockey fans got all dressed up for a game and crowded into the arena for a night on the town.
But the NHL’s 1967 expansion from six teams to 12 started to dilute the product at the senior amateur level. More players were able to get better money in the big league.
Expo ’74 was the real catalyst.
“In the ’60s, Saturday nights drew big crowds,” Delaney said. “Then we got the opera house and folks had other things to do on Saturday nights. They could go to concerts and other events. The attendance statistics started to drop off.”
The connection fans felt to the players runs through the hockey culture that exists today, along with an appreciation for a blue-collar, hard-nosed style of game.
It rings true for Mike Boyle, who’s entering his 20th season calling the play-by-play for the WHL Spokane Chiefs, a major junior team that arrived in 1983 from Kelowna, British Columbia, to fill the hole left by the folded senior Flyers.
“No question, we appreciate the grinders here,” Boyle said. “The fans love the guys who put in an honest night’s work, grinding it out every shift. … You look at the guys who have been the most popular players in the history of the franchise.
“They’re not the whirling-dervish, offensive forwards. They’re the tough, gritty guys like Kerry Toporowski, who still holds the league record for penalty minutes in one season (505). He’s still as popular here as he was in 1991.”
All under one roof
Hockey “flies under the radar” in Spokane, Damskow said.
It exists in the shadow of Gonzaga basketball and Washington State football. The NCAA sports teams have their own compelling histories and an exciting product that’s tough to compete with for fans.
“We have plenty of hockey and we have plenty of good hockey players for kids to learn from,” Damskow said, noting many Chiefs players have stayed in Spokane and started their own families.
“I think a lot of people take the Chiefs and the WHL for granted. They don’t realize these kids are going to the NHL. They’re super talented and it’s right here in our backyard.”
It can be a difficult game to follow. The players move quickly and viewers have to track a small black disc down 200 feet of ice and possibly into a 6-foot wide cage of steel and mesh.
“It’s a great game,” Delaney said. “It can be hard to understand. I have friends who don’t embrace it. They say it’s hard to follow.”
The new NHL club in Seattle should inspire more fans to open their eyes to the game, Boyle said.
“A lot of things happen away from the puck that most people don’t see,” he said. “There’s a check in the corner to freeze the puck or you win a puck battle that doesn’t show up on the score sheet, but you start to see what’s in motion and why we were able to get that play going.”
When that interest starts to grow, he said, it should filter down to a new crop of fans for the Chiefs.
It also may turn into a new generation of registrations for Spokane Youth Hockey, kids with an eye of getting their names etched on the Stanley Cup like Tyler Johnson. Johnson is the city’s first born-and-raised player to win hockey’s Holy Grail. With the Tampa Bay Lightning’s victories in 2020 and 2021, he’s done it twice.
A youth market idolizing players like Johnson is where the Kraken are hanging their community development hat.
In addition to the $1.2 billion they’ve spent on turning the old KeyArena into the Climate Pledge Arena, they’re also putting up $80 million on a training facility. With three ice sheets, the facility is within city limits and has access to public transit and other amenities.
“We’re making a real commitment to include everyone,” Boyd said, “and that means to understand that all members of the family are essential to our long-term success and sustainability. Our learn-to-skate programs may be aimed at 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, but we’re asking about the parents and the siblings and what they need to be engaged and entertained. Are there playgrounds nearby, a library?”
The Kraken’s One Roof Foundation, he said, intends to provide access to families that might not have the financial means to play hockey, known to be one of the most expensive youth sports to play thanks to the costs of equipment, ice time and team travel.
Boyd and his team are reaching out to partner with the five U.S.-based WHL teams and youth hockey organizations around the PNW to get their feedback on how the Kraken can make a “thoughtful” impact on hockey culture and the growth of the game.
“We want to set a foundation here in Seattle and build from there,” he said. “At a high level, we want to ensure the community is diverse and inclusive. It won’t happen on Day 1 or Game 1, but it’s a commitment I’m really excited about.”
If you build it
The Kraken aren’t reinventing the wheel.
While California’s first entry into the NHL, the California Golden Seals, didn’t have long-lasting success, interest in the game grew upon Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in 1988 to the Los Angeles Kings.
It exploded with the 1993 birth of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a name inspired by the success of the Disney movie franchise.
Community outreach programs helped kids buy into the team and the game, as they’ve done in the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars coverage areas.
Twenty years ago, an NHL player born in any of those regions was rare. This past season, a kid from San Ramon, California, Auston Matthews, won the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in a single season. There’s Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, born in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets, born in Arlington, Texas.
The list continues to grow with every NHL entry draft.
Spokane is ahead of the game with three players already in the big leagues: Johnson, now with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Derek Ryan and Kailer Yamamoto, both with the Edmonton Oilers. All three graduated from the Chiefs’ program.
Scott Carter, Chiefs general manager since 2016, sees the potential for the Kraken to help grow hockey in Eastern Washington.
“If you go back 25 years,” he said, “the Zags were just starting to build their program. Now they have a competitive team. The Kraken can build that same sort of thing and people will get behind the team. They will learn more about the game, want to learn to skate.
“They have to take their time. It worked for the Ducks. I saw it grow there and I lived in Scottsdale for a while. Same thing. Texas, same thing. They are places that weren’t hockey towns. They need the time to build the rinks, time to build the programs.”
Carter hails from the hockey hotbed of Penticton, British Columbia. Hockey doesn’t just have its own culture there, it’s an integral part of Canadian culture.
“It’s a religion where I come from; arenas are like churches,” he said. “Here, that’s maybe football or basketball.”
The game can’t grow, however, without more of those ice churches being built across the state. In Canada, he said, hockey rinks are publicly funded and subsidized by government. Ice rinks in the U.S. are often privately owned and are expensive to operate.
The Kraken’s training facility is a step in the right direction. Boyd notes the building will be the host of large youth tournaments, bringing in teams from across the region.
The Kraken have gone “above and beyond” to get youth hockey organizations involved, Damskow said.
They’ve invited Spokane teams to participate in NHL games in Seattle and they’ve involved Spokane Youth Hockey for the exhibition game here in September.
“They want us on full display to help grow the sport,” Damskow said. “Everybody is so excited, from Washington, Idaho and Montana.”
It’s a family thing
Damskow started playing the game when he was 7 years old. His babysitter’s family billeted Chiefs players and his connection to the players made him want to play hockey.
When his parents started to house players during the WHL season, he was all in.
“Watching the Memorial Cup of 1991 was so amazing,” he said. “I got into the game and I played right up until college. It’s the competition, the physicality, the mental game … there’s so much to it.
“And the camaraderie, too. It’s second to none of any sport. The guys, they leave it all out on the ice. They go out and battle against each other and then they’re buddies later. You see it after a fight all the time; they give each other knuckles and it’s all over.”
The camaraderie extends to family barbecues outside the rink after tryouts.
“It’s a lot of fun, a good environment with a lot of positive influences,” Damskow said.
The sense of family runs from youth organizations all the way up to the big leagues. Boyle said he knows if he has a question or needs help with anything, he only has to pick up his phone.
“I just have to call one person and if they don’t know, well, he knows someone who does,” Boyle said. “There’s a family atmosphere in hockey. It’s a tight-knit gathering that makes it special.”
Damskow is thrilled his kids – Dean, 6, and Dylan, 8 – have started playing. They recently found interest in the game, watching their friends enjoy their time on the ice.
“I feel like I’m well-rounded because of hockey,” Damskow said.
“Life’s about highs and lows and you really learn that on the ice and in the dressing room. It’s what hockey is all about.”
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