Sports

Canucks see rivals and 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 youd line up for a faceoff and they could spit right through the chicken wire.”

While Bennings memories of his time playing against Seattle are still there — and who could forget chain-link fence in place of glass boards at one end of the rink — hes also thinking ahead. Looking out at an empty arena a couple hours before a Canucks faceoff, he can envision a few years from now when fans of Seattles new NHL franchise are 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. Were 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 have for years made their way north to Vancouver to see the game played at its highest level. But theres an almost equally excited group just north of the 49th parallel who cant 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 theyre going to connect in a whole different way and I think thats 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 were going to play some great games.”

Adding Seattle to the league helps the Canucks in various ways, from marketing, to travel, to simply interest in the game. Stipec is already planning ways the Canucks can sell Seattles addition, even if its three years away.

Stipec noted that even as the Canucks 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 new and different opportunities.

“Our season ticket members, what theyre looking for now are experiences,” Stipec said. “Theyll 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, thats something theyre really excited about, too, and were excited to be offering that.”

While it would seem the proximity of the two cities could create issues when competing for dollars on the business side, it doesnt 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 corporate dollars and talent acquisition.

“It couldnt be a more perfect storm for the Canucks in that its not that we just have somebody thats two and a half hours away, we have that international border between us,” Stipec said. “So that protects us a lot from corporate partnerships, broadcast rights, a whole bunch of things. Its not like a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia situation. So its 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. Playoff games have been broadcast on Seattle sports radio at times through the years, but any fans that have made an investment in being Canucks ticket holders have found them.

Alym Rayani is one of those. He 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 was finding himself driving back for games after settling in Seattle during the Canucks run as one Western Conferences elite teams earlier this decade.

But like others from the Seattle area who regularly attend Canucks games, theyre hockey fans more than Vancouver fans. For Rayani, his loyalty and his dollars will belong to Seattle when it comes on board. Hes 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 Im going to feel 10 years from now,” Rayani said. “My kids, they watch the Canucks now, theyre going to be huge Seattle fans Im sure. … I think over time I will morph to Seattle. I like the idea of being a fan or part of something from day one.”

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