Canucks see rivals, partners in new Seattle NHL franchise
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA (AP) >> Sitting high above the ice of Rogers Arena, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning has 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 chicken wire.”
While Benning’s memories 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 of hours before a Canucks faceoff, he 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 ½ hours away by car. Seattle will be a critical partner for the future success of both franchises.
“We see this as a kind of one plus one equals three. We’re going to be able to grow the sport of hockey in this region, working with the Seattle team,” Canucks COO Jeff Stipec said.
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 team 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. Stipec is already planning ways the Canucks can sell Seattle’s addition, even if it’s three years away.
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.
“Our season ticket members, what they’re looking for now are experiences,” Stipec said. “They’ll hop down, go to Vegas, follow the team down to Vegas. But to be able to put together some packages where our season ticket members are hopping on the bus, having a great time, going down to Seattle for a game and then coming back, that’s something they’re really excited about, too, and we’re excited to be offering that.”
Otto Rogers playfully holds up stickers against the proposed name Kraken and in support of Totems following the announcement of a new NHL hockey team in Seattle, at a celebratory party Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, in Seattle.