Canucks see ri­vals, part­ners in Seat­tle ex­pan­sion fran­chise

Penticton Herald - - SPORTS - By The As­so­ci­ated Press

VAN­COU­VER — Sit­ting high above the ice of Rogers Arena, Van­cou­ver Canucks gen­eral man­ager Jim Ben­ning is re­call­ing fond mem­o­ries of his time play­ing ju­nior hockey for the Port­land Win­ter­hawks of the West­ern Hockey League and their trips up In­ter­state 5 to play at the old Mercer Arena against the Seat­tle Thun­der­birds.

Well, how fond he is de­pends on the per­spec­tive.

“They had chicken wire, and the fans were rowdy,” Ben­ning re­called re­cently. “The thing with the chicken wire is like you’d line up for a face­off and they could spit right through the wire.”

While Ben­ning’s mem­o­ries of play­ing against Seat­tle re­main — and who could for­get chain-link fence in place of glass boards at one end of the rink — he’s also think­ing ahead.

Look­ing out at an empty arena a cou­ple hours be­fore a Canucks face­off, Ben­ning can en­vi­sion fans of Seat­tle’s new NHL fran­chise mak­ing the trek north on I-5, through the bor­der cross­ing and into down­town Van­cou­ver to watch their team play the Canucks.

He has no doubt it will be a healthy ri­valry and great for the sport in this corner of North Amer­ica. But the Canucks see the ad­di­tion of Seat­tle as more than adding a ri­val 2 1/2 hours away by car. Seat­tle will be a crit­i­cal part­ner for the fu­ture suc­cess of both fran­chises.

The ap­proval of Seat­tle as the 32nd NHL fran­chise ear­lier this week has thrilled hockey fans who for years made their way north to Van­cou­ver to see the game played at its high­est level.

But there’s an al­most equally ex­cited group just north of the 49th par­al­lel who can’t wait for 2021 when the Seat­tle fran­chise be­gins play.

“Van­cou­ver is al­ready a part­ner. They were the most en­thu­si­as­tic team in the league about this. They love the idea of this ri­valry,” Seat­tle pres­i­dent Tod Lei­weke said. “I think for the two cities to con­nect like this, the two cities are 130 miles away but now they’re go­ing to con­nect in a whole dif­fer­ent way, and I think that’s one of the great things that is go­ing to come out of all this is a deep, deep vis­ceral con­nec­tion be­tween Van­cou­ver and Seat­tle, and we’re go­ing to play some great games.”

Adding Seat­tle to the league helps the Canucks in var­i­ous ways, from mar­ket­ing to travel and in­ter­est in the game. The team is al­ready plan­ning ways it can sell Seat­tle’s ad­di­tion, even if it’s three years away.

Canucks COO Jeff Stipec noted that even as Van­cou­ver’s on-ice prod­uct is im­prov­ing around a core of young stars and re­ju­ve­nat­ing in­ter­est in the city af­ter a few down sea­sons, the fans flock­ing back to the games are seek­ing dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties. They want spe­cial events, like be­ing able to hop on a bus for a road trip to Seat­tle.

“Our sea­son ticket mem­bers, what they’re look­ing for now are ex­pe­ri­ences,” said Stipec, who ac­cord­ing to Cana­dian me­dia re­ports is step­ping down from his po­si­tion but is cur­rently still in his role with the team. The team has not made any an­nounce­ment about Stipec’s fu­ture.

While it would seem the prox­im­ity of the two cities might cre­ate is­sues in com­pet­ing for dol­lars on the busi­ness side, it doesn’t ap­pear that will be the case largely be­cause of the bor­der. The bor­der cre­ates a nat­u­ral break be­tween the two teams — both in their at­tempts to gain mar­ket share, but also in seek­ing cor­po­rate dol­lars and the ac­qui­si­tion of tal­ent.

“That pro­tects us a lot from cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, broad­cast rights, a whole bunch of things,” Stipec said of the in­ter­na­tional bor­der. “It’s not like a Pitts­burgh-Philadel­phia sit­u­a­tion. So it’s great that way, that we have our own pro­tected mar­kets in a sense in some of those key ar­eas.”

The Canucks have not ac­tively sought to pro­mote them­selves in the Seat­tle area, though play­off games have been broad­cast on Seat­tle sports ra­dio at times through the years. Still, hockey fans in the area have made the Canucks their team.

Alym Rayani lives just out­side Seat­tle and has gone in with friends on sea­son tick­ets for the Canucks for about a decade.

Af­ter spend­ing part of his child­hood in Van­cou­ver, Rayani drove back for games af­ter set­tling in Seat­tle dur­ing the Canucks’ run as one of the top teams ear­lier this decade.

But like oth­ers from the Seat­tle area who reg­u­larly at­tend Canucks games, they’re hockey fans more than Van­cou­ver fans.

For Rayani, his loy­alty and his dol­lars will be­long to Seat­tle when it comes on board. He’s No. 16 on the sea­son-ticket de­posit list.

“I def­i­nitely feel loy­alty to the Canucks be­ing born there and hav­ing lived there, but I think it will be in­ter­est­ing how I’m go­ing to feel 10 years from now,” Rayani said.

“My kids, they watch the Canucks now, they’re go­ing to be huge Seat­tle fans I’m sure. I think over time I will morph to Seat­tle. I like the idea of be­ing a fan or part of some­thing from Day 1.”

Ben­ning

Lei­weke

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