KENT, Wash. — On Tuesday, the Seattle Thunderbirds took the ice for a midweek practice just like any other day.
But it wasn’t any other day for the junior hockey league club.
Just a few hours before, across the country, the National Hockey League announced Seattle would become the home of the 32nd franchise in the league.
“Seattle, the NHL is thrilled to welcome you. And so today is a day for celebration in a great city that adores and avidly supports its sports teams and for our 101-year-old league,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The unnamed team will play at the Seattle Center Arena, the former home of the T-Birds.
“And it’ll be a good, they (NHL Seattle) will present really well. We certainly are intrigued to see that KeyArena renovation, because we lived with KeyArena for so long and what the last renovation did there,” said Russ Farwell, Seattle Thunderbirds VP of Hockey Operations.
The T-Birds moved to Kent in 2009 after frustration from the team and fans with poor sight-line construction for those playing and watching the games.
“It was a disaster, really, to play there, because it wasn’t built for hockey and we were trying to make it work all the time,” Farwell said.
Tod Leiweke, CEO of the new franchise, said on Tuesday the privately-financed renovation is now priced at roughly $800 million.
Leiweke said he hopes to open the redeveloped Seattle Center Arena by spring 2021.
“We talked,” said Farwell, when asked if Leiweke had consulted with him about changes to KeyArena. “He was here one night at one of our games, and we talked about it. He certainly knows the history. But they’re going after it to make it a real presentable place for the league. They certainly have lots of restrictions they have to meet. But it’s going to be a real interesting puzzle to put that together.”
The Thunderbirds moved to Seattle in 1977 and captured their first Western Hockey League Championship in 2017.
Farwell said he believes their brand of hockey makes them immune to competition from an NHL team coming to the region.
“That’s been a real discussion. There was lot of talk even when this building was built, because they wondered that [about the potential NHL expansion to Seattle] and we thought, because of the size, and keeping it at 6,000 seats, we think we’ll be fine here. It’s just a different price point,” said Farwell.
The Everett Silvertips, the Thunderbirds rival, also shrugged off any challenge to business from an NHL expansion to Seattle.
“I think it’s a totally different animal,” said Zoran Rajcic, Chief Operating Officer for the Silvertips. “They are the National Hockey League for a reason. We have a subset in a more regionalized-niche market for our sport here. I think it’s going to be great, and what I think it’s going to do, is just gain more popularity for the sport and visibility of the sport when it does arrive,” said Rajcic.
Both the Silvertips (4,665/game) and Thunderbirds (4,509/game) rank in the top 10 in the Western Hockey League in average attendance.
The expected capacity of the newly renovated Seattle Center Arena is 17,000.
In March, more than 33,000 people put down season ticket deposits for the unnamed NHL team in Seattle, including 10,000 season tickets sold in the first 12 minutes.