VANCOUVER, British Columbia — 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 chicken 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 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 + 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 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. 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.
”It’s not that we just have somebody that’s 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. 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 Western Conference’s elite 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 one.”