Before the Thorns, Portland had a Power surge


Once upon a time, a women’s professional sports team in Portland was capturing the imagination of the city, drawing big crowds and had become the flagship team for a league struggling in many other areas.

These days, that would be the Portland Thorns. But before the Thorns, there was the Portland Power, and many of the same aspects that make the Thorns special were seen in the brief, but spectacular, few seasons that the Power existed.

In the annuls of Portland sports history, the Power would make for an interesting chapter. They were only in existence between 1996-98, just over two seasons. But what they did in those seasons was wake up a fanbase not really served by the NBA’s Trail Blazers, WHL’s Winterhawks or PCL’s Beavers.

Because the fanbase that is celebrated at Thorns games, including the large number of young girls, a big part of the region’s lesbian community and area families, were the fanbase of the Power. They hooked on to the team from Day 1, and didn’t let up until the American Basketball League folded at the end of 1998.

Those Power teams were fun to watch, as well, especially after Lin Dunn took over as head coach midway through the 1996-97 season. There was fantastic talent on the Power, with ex-Tennessee star Michelle Marciniak running the show from the point, former UCLA star Natalie Williams controlling the paint, local legend Katy Steding shooting threes and Lisa Harrison working the perimeter.

Though the Power missed the playoffs their first season, attendance was already building. Crowds of between 7-8,000 were not uncommon in Memorial Coliseum, and they were an enthusiastic group during the bad times and when Dunn started to build for 1997-98.

The 1997-98 season was one to remember, and I admit a bit of bias on this. I was the home radio producer for the Power that season, handling duties for play-by-play voice Kevin Toon (who also was the media relations director for the Power the first two seasons). The Power added Delisha Milton and Sylvia Crawley to the team, and they went on to win the ABL Western Conference that season with a 27-17 record. The fun in the Coliseum that season was amazing, as the Power were far and away the biggest drawing home team in the ABL. They even approached 10,000 on a few nights as the team stayed in first place.

The memories of that season are still vivid to me. For that season, Williams may have been the best all-around center in the women’s game (yes, I’m including Lisa Leslie in that). Marciniak was the crowd favorite with her hard-nosed play, ability to control the game and willingness to get in the face of an opposing player if she needed. Steding continued her high level of play in front of her hometown fans, and Milton added a spark that seemed to start runs as needed.

Then, of course, there was Lin Dunn. Few coaches in Portland history ever had the impact, or could be as entertaining, as Dunn. I often had to turn down the crowd mike when she’d go after a ref or got upset with a bad play. Her yell of “MICHELLE!!!” when trying to get Marciniak’s attention would echo though the Coliseum, even when the big crowds were cranking up the noise. Those of us on press row, and even players on the bench, would often have Lin Dunn sound-alike contests. Heck, Dunn herself would chime in on those on occasion, just to loosen things up. On occasion, she’d give a thumbs up, a wavy hand or a thumbs down to the fans behind the bench who tried to mimic her vocal style.

The type of crowd seen at Power games was different than what Portland had seen, as well. The number of girls’ basketball teams who would come out, dressed proudly in team gear, and filling sections of the Coliseum was often quite large. They would line up around the court for autographs with Power players after games, and players like Williams, Marciniak, Steding and Harrison were as big to the girls in the Portland metro area as any of the Blazers. That ticket prices were reasonable and it was a “family atmosphere: also added to the appeal of the team.

Power games were also a big occasion for Portland’s LGBTQ community, especially lesbians. It was no secret that a number of Power season ticket holders were lesbian couples, and the Power were the first team that they felt like they could call their own. They were comfortable being themselves at Power games, and they every night was a big occasion. The recent Willamette Week article that called Portland Thorns’ games the city’s biggest LGBTQ cocktail party and biggest lesbian bar in the city…well, that was a Portland Power game in 1996-98. They were some of the team’s biggest fans, and their passion for the team and the game was on full display. In a sense, the Power gave a glimpse to what we would see with the Thorns years later.

The Power lost to Long Beach in the conference finals that season, but all seemed to be set for a title run in the 1998-99 ABL season. Outside of Columbus, who had won the first two ABL titles (coached by Brian Alger, one of the best women’s pro basketball coaches of all time), no team in the league was as stable as Portland.

But there were issues beyond the control of the Power that would seal its doom. The first was the league itself, which always seemed to operate on shoestring and emphasized national sponsorships over local money. While the Power had no problems getting local sponsors, the often-haphazard decisions coming from league staff was a big issue with other teams in the league. The crew in the Power offices often had to scramble when a decision from the ABL would come out with no notice to the teams, sometimes on game nights.

Another issue was the “other league”, the WNBA. The battle between the ABL and the WNBA was fierce and cutthroat, and because Nike was based in the Portland suburb of Beaverton, Power games often were a battleground for player recruitment. It wasn’t unusual for Lisa Leslie to sit behind the visiting team’s bench, talking to players before and after games trying to get them to jump to the WNBA. That the ABL was Reebok league added to this, as Leslie was Nike’s main client in women’s basketball at that time.

(No, I can’t say whether Leslie was trying to recruit players for Nike, because I don’t know, but she was recruiting for the WNBA.)

Each league had its strong points. The ABL had most of the best players in women’s basketball and played during “basketball season”, between November and April. The WNBA had the money because of the backing of the NBA and because of its summer schedule, players could play overseas for more money in the fall and spring, and players could make more money overseas than in the ABL.

Then there was the lack of support from other teams in Portland. The Trail Blazers couldn’t openly support the Power because of the NBA-WNBA connection, but members of the Blazers would show up at Power games on occasion. Otherwise, support from the Blazers’ staff was more tepid, at best.

The Portland Winterhawks didn’t like the presence of the Power at all, because they lost possible home dates in the Coliseum (the Hawks couldn’t get more than a few dates in the Rose Garden in those days, as opposed to the big presence they have in the big arena now) and that the Power outdrew the Hawks on a number of occasions. The Power were seen as a threat to the Winterhawks’ position as the number two team in Portland to some in the Hawks office, and rarely did I see Hawks staff any grumpier than when they were playing in the Garden on the same night the Power were in the Coliseum. If they bragged about their Memorial Cup win to anyone, it was to those connected with the Power, because it gave some in the Hawks’ staff a feeling of superiority over the Power.

It wasn’t to last, of course. By time the 1998-99 season had started, Marciniak was in Long Beach, as was Williams for a brief time. But when the Long Beach team folded, Williams was assigned back to Portland. While the Power was still drawing big crowds, it felt like the ABL itself was doomed. I was still with the team, but was assigned to running the Coliseum scoreboard because the new radio play-by-play broadcaster didn’t want me as producer and the new media relations director wasn’t sure what to do with me. Games were still fun, but dealing with the league wasn’t.

It all came to a crashing end three days before Christmas in 1998, when the ABL announced the entire league was going out of business. It was done by press release, so many of the Power players and staff didn’t have prior notice of the collapse (I found out by listening to the radio, not from anyone with the Power). Just like that, the Power was gone, but they made an impact on the city and its fans that is still looked back on by some with a smile.

The WNBA did put a team in Portland, as the Fire played for three seasons starting in 2000. But the Fire never drew the crowds that the Power did, with some fans blaming the WNBA as much for the Power’s demise as the ABL itself and thus not supporting the new team. While Crawley and Marciniak returned to Portland to play for the Fire, and college sensation Jackie Stiles being a big league a draw, the Fire never matched the passion that the Power did. Despite an attempt by a local group (which included Clyde Drexler) to purchase the Fire, Paul Allen and the Trail Blazers (who owned and operated the team) folded the team after the 2002 season. For women’s pro sports in Portland, that was the end until the Thorns started up in 2013.

It wouldn’t be surprising if many fans of a certain age at Thorns games were also regulars at Power games. Much of the passion we see now at Providence Park for Portland’s NWSL team was seen at Memorial Coliseum for Portland’s ABL team. In a league structure, the Power was much like to the unstable ABL as the Thorns are now to the NWSL. The big difference, of course, is that there’s no real national competition for players for NWSL clubs like the WNBA was to the ABL.

But, for a brief time in the 1990s, there was excitement for women’s professional sports in Portland. Their time was short, but the Power gave us a glimpse of how fun women’s professional sports could be, and how passionate the fans could be for that. I believe they laid the groundwork for what we would see with the Thorns, and should be remembered as such.

The Portland Power was more than a footnote in Portland sports history. They were groundbreakers.

(Photo is the Portland Power logo from a shirt the author still owns from his time working with the team.)

Mixed fortunes for OHL, QMJHL moves into US markets over the years


While the success of US-based teams in the Western Hockey League is long-standing, it took a while for the concept to take hold in the two eastern major junior hockey leagues.

The Ontario Hockey League has been in the US for over 25 years, though stability of their teams has been questioned at times. The experience for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, though, hasn’t been good, with instability being the norm.

Amazingly, it was the QMJHL that was the second major junior hockey league that expanded into the US. But, as with most decisions in the Q in the 1980s, it wasn’t well thought out.

They went into New York in 1984, but the expansion Plattsburgh Pioneers didn’t last long. They were hampered by numerous issues, including a lack of stable finances, no expansion draft to stock the team, a decision from the QMJHL office that forbid them from having any Quebec-born players (or any other player within the Q’s player base) on their roster and the league not allowing Plattsburgh to recruit anywhere in the US outside of specific areas of the northeast US. After going winless in 17 games (0-16-1), along with a home arena that opened late (thus playing at Plattsburgh State’s arena to start), the Pioneers folded. Some consider the team to be the worse in major junior hockey history, but they probably were doomed from the start, with no help from the league.

It was 1990 that the Ontario Hockey League finally secured a base in the US. It made sense that Detroit would be the place, as Peter Karmanos’ Detroit Compuware Ambassadors jumped into the OHL. After failing to move the Windsor Spitfires across the river, Karmanos sold that team and moved the Ambassadors’ top team from the North American Hockey League into the OHL. After two seasons in Cobo Arena, they changed their name, moved next door to Joe Louis Arena and more success came.

The Jr. Red Wings became the first US-based OHL team to win the league title in 1995, when they also made the Memorial Cup Final (losing to the WHL champs and tourney hosts, Kamloops Blazers). But numerous disputes with the NHL’s Red Wings, including a failed bid to purchase the team, led to the team being forced out of Joe Louis Arena. Karmanos would eventually rename the team the Detroit Whalers, after his newly purchased Hartford Whalers, and they moved to the Detroit suburbs of Oak Hill and Auburn Hills (playing in The Palace of Auburn Hills, the home of the NBA Pistons, for a time). Eventually he would settle the team in the western suburb of Plymouth, where the Whalers would stay for 18 years.

The next OHL team in the US was the Erie Otters. The Pennsylvania city came into the OHL in 1996, when the Niagara Falls Thunder moved to the city. They have had mixed success on the ice, capped by winning the OHL title in 2002, a finals appearance in 2015 and recent success spurred by the arrival of Connor McDavid in 2012.

However, the McDavid years in Erie almost didn’t happen. Legal issues between Otters ownership and a subsidiary of the Edmonton Oilers, that supposedly was to lead to a sale and move of the team to Hamilton, Ontario, led to a massive financial drain on the team. The Otters’ owner, Sherry Bassin, filed for bankruptcy in 2015, but eventually were sold to a new ownership group that was committed to keeping the team in Erie. The legal issues seem to be behind the team, and the Otters can once again strive for stability.

Saginaw came into the OHL in 2002 when the North Bay Centennials were moved there and were renamed the Saginaw Spirit. While the team regularly makes the playoffs, they’ve only made the OHL quarterfinals three times. The team has had steady attendance in recent years, though 2015-16 was the worst season the team has had in the stands. That might change with the help of a new rival that arrived in 2015.

Those would be the Flint Firebirds, which moved from Plymouth after Karmanos sold the team. But it was a very long first season, to say the least. The club’s new owner, Rolf Nelsen, fired the coaching staff on two occasions (supposedly for not playing his son enough), each time leading to a player revolt. After the second coaching clearout, the OHL took over the team, suspended Nelsen and worked to bring a sense of normalcy to the team. Eventually, Nelsen was suspended for five seasons, and could be forced to sell the team if he tries to get involved in hockey operations again during that time. But things have stabilized for now in Flint, and with the emergence of the new/old rivalry with Saginaw, the Firebirds have a chance to gain a foothold on the Michigan hockey scene.

As for the QMJHL, they tried one more time to go into the US. In 2003, the Sherbrooke Castors moved to Lewiston, Maine, and became the Lewiston MAINEiacs. Their home, the Androscoggin Bank Colisée, was more known as the site of the legendary second Ali-Liston fight, but the MAINEiacs were there for eight seasons. The highlight was in 2007, when they became the first American team to win the QMJHL title. They lost in the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game, but making it to Vancouver was the peak. But the team always struggled to work financially in central Maine, even with the title run.

For years afterward, the MAINEiacs were the subject of numerous relocation rumors, with one relocation attempt to the Montréal suburb of Boisbriand stopped by another QMJHL team, the short-lived Montréal Junior. Talks with other cities failed, and in 2011 the QMJHL ended up buying the team. After the league bought the MAINEiacs, it disbanded the club. A year later, the team was back in Sherbrooke, beginning new life as the Phoenix, and the Q was once again the only major junior league without a US-based club.

Any future growth for the OHL and QMJHL in the US may be tied to cities losing their AHL teams. Binghamton is close enough for an OHL owner to consider (ironically, they’re likely losing their AHL team to Belleville, Ontario, which just lost its OHL team last season), but whether fans would accept a junior team after losing a longtime AHL franchise is questionable. Unless an owner wants to return to suburban Detroit or put a team in western New York, there may not be many options for more US teams in the OHL.

As for the QMJHL, the options are even fewer. One might look at Portland, Maine, as they just lost their AHL team and could be a rival for Saint John. Otherwise, any other locations that the Q could even consider already have college teams, which is the main competition for players for the three junior leagues.

The one thing going for the three leagues is that the main US junior league, the USHL, is mostly in markets that are too far away to ever be considered competition for cities. The exception may be Youngstown, which would be a natural rival for Erie and is well separated from the rest of the USHL.  But whether the OHL would want to go into Ohio, or go as far south as Youngstown, is not known.

Mixed success would be the best way to describe the efforts of the OHL in the US, while failure could be the word for the QMJHL’s forays south of the border. While the WHL is light years ahead in history and stability in the US, at least the OHL has Erie, Saginaw & Flint to continue to build their presence on the American side of the border. It would be surprising, however, if the Q ever goes back to the US to place a team because of its subpar history in Plattsburgh and Lewiston.

Maybe in the future, both leagues may look to the US to put a team. Right now, don’t count on it.

(The article on the history of US-based teams in the Western Hockey League can be found here)

(Photo of Flint Firebirds player Vili Saarijärvi by “Jfvoll” from Wikimedia Commons, used via Creative Commons license)


US teams in WHL vital, thriving 40 years after Portland made junior hockey history


Forty years ago this summer, a moment that forever changed the hockey world in North America, especially junior hockey, took place.

The moment that Brian Shaw announced that he was moving the Edmonton Oil Kings to Portland, where they would become the Winterhawks, shook the hockey landscape. The team had been struggling as the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers became more popular, and it was decided that a move was needed to get the club back on track.

After being blocked from moving to Vancouver by the New Westminster Bruins, and taking into account coach Ken Hodge’s preference to move the team to Spokane, Shaw decided that Portland and its Memorial Coliseum was the place to be. Thus, Canadian major junior hockey set up shop in the United States, and it’s never left.

(Kamloops sportswriter Gregg Drinnan posted a story by longtime Winterhawks broadcaster Dean Vrooman on how the move transpired that’s well worth your time.)

It took a few years, but Portland hockey fans, used to the professional game and the highly successful Buckaroos, eventually took the Hawks into their hearts. It was the 1978-79 season, when the Hawks lost just 10 regular season games, that was the turning point in the franchise. Portland finally got past the Bruins in the playoffs and pushed a legendary Brandon Wheat Kings team, who lost only five games in the regular season, to six games in the WHL Finals. Where small crowds were mostly the norm the first couple of years in Memorial Coliseum (prompting one politician to try and force the Hawks to move to the considerably smaller Jantzen Beach Ice Arena), they picked up during that season.

But by then, Shaw’s move to Portland already had major impacts on the league and on Canadian major junior hockey. The year after the Oil Kings moved to Portland, the Kamloops Chiefs packed up for Seattle and became the Breakers, while the Calgary Centennials shifted to Billings, Montana and became the Bighorns. The league even changed its name, going from the Western Canada Hockey League to the Western Hockey League, the name of the old professional circuit that fans in Canada and the United States loved in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

There was some early success outside of Portland. Billings was the first US-based team to make the playoff finals of a Canadian major junior hockey league, losing to New Westminster in the 1978 WHL Finals. Seattle was able to revive the long-time rivalry with Portland, giving the WHL another set of must-follow dates on the schedule.

It was also a badly needed move for the league, giving the then-Western Canada Hockey League a fourth team west of the Rocky Mountains, joining New Westminster, Victoria and (at that time) Kamloops in the West Division. The WCHL, mainly a Prairies-based league, was able to expand its footprint into new areas that also brought in needed revenue.

Of course, the move into the US was filled with ups and downs for the WHL. A second edition of the Edmonton Oil Kings moved to Great Falls, Montana in 1979 and became the Americans. Even with a new Four Seasons Arena to play in, that team lasted just 29 games before folding, but resurfaced the following season as the Spokane Flyers. The Flyers lasted a bit longer, making it through one season before folding 26 games into its second, the 1981-82 season. The Billings Bighorns lasted five seasons before moving to Nanaimo, BC, having never recaptured the great success of their first season.

Seattle, playing in the old Seattle Center Arena, struggled to break into the mindset of the fans who were still coming off of the disappointment of the failed move of the Totems from the old pro WHL into the NHL, and always seemed to be financially behind the rest of the league (leading to the infamous trade of Tom Martin to Victoria for a used team bus).

In the meantime, Portland was still creating history. The Winterhawks became the first US-based team to win a major junior hockey league title in 1982, when they beat the Regina Pats in the final, and thus became the first American team to compete for the Memorial Cup. While they came up short in Hull, Quebec, the experience led Shaw, still running the team, to propose something that would, again, shake junior hockey.

First, Shaw wanted Portland to host the Memorial Cup tournament in 1983, taking the event into the US for the first time. Second, after seeing the small crowds that attended the 1982 event in Hull that involved Portland, Kitchener (OHL) and Sherbrooke (QMJHL), he proposed that the host team also be a part of the tournament, expanding it to four teams and eliminating the double round-robin format before the final game. Both ideas were approved, and the 1983 Memorial Cup made history. That the Hawks, who had lost to Lethbridge in the WHL Finals, ended up winning the Memorial Cup added to the historic nature of the event, as they became the first American team to win junior hockey’s biggest prize. They also hosted in 1986, but didn’t make the final (the OHL’s Guelph Platers won the Cup).

The success of Portland and Seattle ended up offsetting the failures in Great Falls, Billings and Spokane for the WHL, and soon teams were moving back south of the border. The Kelowna Wings, after three seasons in tiny Memorial Arena, moved to Spokane and became the Chiefs. Unlike the last time the WHL was in the eastern Washington city, there was no successful senior amateur team to compete with (Spokane won four Allan Cups between 1970-80), and the Chiefs gained a foothold. After a few tricky years at the beginning, the Chiefs eventually became a major success, winning the Memorial Cup in 1991 and 2008 while hosting in 1998. Spokane holds the honor of being the last US city to host a Memorial Cup, and it was won by another American side, the Winterhawks.

Spokane’s success led to another move into the US market for the WHL, as the second version of the New Westminster Bruins (formerly the Billings Bighorns and Nanaimo Islanders) moved to southeastern Washington and became the Tri-City Americans. While the first 20 seasons were tricky at times, with move threats happening on occasion (WHL expansion to Vancouver and Chilliwack was a direct result of the league blocking owners from moving the Ams to those cities), ownership has stabilized and the team has become a success. The Spokane-Tri-City rivalry has also become one of the core rivalries of the WHL, with sellouts common for their games.

After a while, Seattle finally became more stable. After an ownership change, the team changed its name from Breakers to Thunderbirds in 1985, tapping into a bit of the Totems look. They finally started drawing consistently large crowds to the Arena, to the point that they started playing some games in the much-larger Seattle Center Coliseum, which hadn’t seen hockey since the Totems died over a decade earlier. They even hosted the Memorial Cup in 1992 at the Coliseum, a major accomplishment considering the crazy early history of the team.

However, the WHL wanted to add a second team in western Washington, as well. The first attempt was in Tacoma, where a natural rivalry with nearby Seattle would be set up. However, the Tacoma Dome was oversized and horrible for hockey, and after four seasons the Rockets moved to Kelowna, setting up a very successful run in the BC city in its second WHL attempt. If Tacoma had a smaller arena, maybe the Rockets would have succeeded, but we’ll never know.

The WHL eventually got another team in the Puget Sound region. There was a threat to move the Thunderbirds from Seattle’s KeyArena (which, after a basketball-centric remodel, became barely usable for hockey) to a new arena in Everett, 30 miles to the north. In the end, the T-Birds were sold, stayed in KeyArena for a few more years (before moving to a new arena in suburban Kent), and the former owner got an expansion team in Everett. The Silvertips made history by making the WHL Finals in their first season, and have established a solid fan base since.

Success came to all five teams now in the US Division. Portland and Spokane have both won the Memorial Cup twice, the only American teams to do so. Seattle has been to the league final twice, including last season. Everett and Tri-City have both been to the league finals, as well, while the US Division is often seen as the toughest division in the WHL.

What’s the future of US-based teams in the WHL? The five teams in the US Division (Everett, Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Tri-City) have all become very successful and are staying put for a long time. Even with the league tending to not include the American teams in promotions and special events, those five are among the healthiest teams in the league. They’ve done it on their own, and the WHL wouldn’t be the same, or as healthy, without them.

Are there American cities that could be future sites for a WHL team? There have been occasional mentions of Wenatchee as a possible future team location. They have a fairly-new 4,500-seat arena and have drawn very well for its current junior team, the Wenatchee Wild (which moved up to the BCHL last season and immediately had the best home attendance in the league). Billings still has Rimrock Arena, the same 10,000-seat arena that the Bighorns played in many years ago. But at this point, Billings is too far out of the way from the rest of the league to ever be considered seriously again. No other American city even gets in the discussion now.

While once upon a time places like Boise and Anchorage (who now have ECHL teams) were discussed, the current reality is that the WHL doesn’t have many places south of the border where they could expand, mainly because cities of decent size are too far from the border and would be tough to get to in a bus league.

But that they were even discussed at one point shows how vital the American teams are to the WHL. While Brian Shaw was seen as maybe a bit crazy when he got the league to approve the Oil Kings’ move to Portland in 1976, hindsight shows that it was a moment of genius. It gave junior hockey new areas to grow in and showed the hockey world that the Northwest was still a hotbed for the sport.

All one needs to do is go to a game in Everett, Portland, Spokane, Kent (Seattle) or Kennewick (Tri-City) to see that.

(Photo: Portland Winterhawks’ Daniel Johnston, 19 January 2009, by K.C. Gale from Wikimedia Commons)

Why Everett should host the 2020 Memorial Cup, if the WHL allows it


After an ultra-successful Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Alberta, the Western Hockey League has a couple of years to determine where the 2020 tournament will be played.

The WHL’s turn was originally supposed to come up in 2019. But with the Memorial Cup Centennial taking place in 2018, the Canadian Hockey League has opened up bidding to all teams in its three leagues for that year.

With the Ontario Hockey League hosting in 2017 in Windsor, that means the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s turn has been pushed back to 2019, and the next WHL-hosted Memorial Cup (if it doesn’t get the 2018 tourney) will be in 2020.

So it will be a few years. But in that time, the league and its top brass will have to answer a couple of important questions.

Will they allow all interested cities who are interested in hosting to actually bid? Or will they prevent from even bidding a city that not only should be on the short list, but should be the top choice to host the 2020 Memorial Cup?

The city in question is Everett, home of the WHL’s Silvertips. It has everything the WHL and the Canadian Hockey League (the umbrella organization that oversees the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) can ever hope for. With a recently-built downtown arena, a new headquarters hotel soon to be completed, plenty of space for all events connected with Cup Week, numerous hotels within a short distance from the arena, a large population base, rabid fans who love the ‘Tips and easy access for fans of numerous other WHL teams, Everett should be a no-brainer to host.

It’s also a market that has never hosted the Memorial Cup, a fact that we were reminded of constantly with Red Deer, which was the first Alberta city in 42 years to host the Memorial Cup tournament. Yes, Seattle hosted in 1992, but as many in Snohomish County will quickly tell you, Everett is nothing like Seattle.

On any level, Everett should be the leading candidate to host the 2020 Memorial Cup. Some might even call the city an obvious choice to host.

But there are obstacles that would prevent Everett from hosting. Those obstacles? The Western Hockey League, Commissioner Ron Robison and the league office.

While it’s never been officially stated, a belief among many fans of the WHL’s US Division teams is that the league either discourages, or outright forbids, any of the American clubs from bidding on the Memorial Cup. Everett, Portland, Spokane and Tri-City have all expressed interest in hosting the Cup in recent cycles, but they never even made the short list.

It’s not like any of the cities have hosted in recent years. Portland last hosted the Cup in 1986, while Seattle hosted in 1992 and Spokane in 1998. While once upon a time American teams were hosting on a semi-regular basis (mainly because the WHL/CHL knew big crowds were guaranteed), they aren’t even invited to the conversation anymore.

There are some issues with the cities. Spokane and the Chiefs may be seen as hosting too recently. The lack of a headquarters hotel and conference center in Kent, near the ShoWare Center, would hurt the Thunderbirds. Tri-Cities may be seen as a bit too remote and the state of the Toyota Center would be an issue. And, of course, the relationship between Robison/WHL and the Portland Winterhawks is probably best described as “chilly”. Everett has none of those issues.

Granted, part of the reason might be the CHL, who may worry about their sponsors. But since about half of the tournament sponsors are just Canadian subsidiaries of US-based companies (including MasterCard, which has its name on the tournament itself), that shouldn’t be a major issue. With the heavy TV exposure the tournament gets in Canada anyway, the sponsors will see their names mentioned many times.

Some of that sponsor worry might be with WHL officials, as well. But the league, while very aggressive in sponsor deals and promotions for its Canadian teams, rarely does the same for the five south of the border. Often, those teams are on their own with promotions and contests. If there’s a contest pushed by the WHL that allows residents of Washington and Oregon to be a part of it, it almost feels like a miracle.

But there’s also a sense that the WHL almost takes the 5 US teams for granted. When Robison ventures south of the border, there’s a feeling of, “Oh, hey, he remembers us!” The last time he acted like he cared about the teams was when he testified to the Washington Legislature that the league and its four teams in the state should be exempt from minimum wage laws (and threatened to move the teams if they had to pay the players a minimum wage).

If the WHL won’t let Everett bid, where would the 2020 Memorial Cup go? The favorite might be Victoria, where a newish arena and a British Columbia market that has never hosted may greatly tempt the league. It may also be a “thank you” for allowing the WHL to move the Chilliwack Bruins to Victoria, therefore beating the American Hockey League in putting a team in the BC capital.

If not Victoria, then the WHL might look at Kamloops, the host of the 1995 tourney. The city is used to hosting big events, including this year’s Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships. They could also consider Moose Jaw, now with its 4,500-seat Mosaic Place. If location compared to the rest of the league isn’t an issue, maybe Prince George and its 6,000-seat CN Centre may have a shot.

But none of those cities have what Everett has. Xfinity Arena is downtown, holds almost 9,000 for hockey and comes with a large conference center and a second rink attached. A new hotel, large enough to be a headquarters hotel for the Cup, will be finished a few blocks away from the arena by 2017. Numerous hotels are located a short distance from the arena, whether within walking distance or a short drive away (Lynnwood, Mukilteo, Tulalip, Marysville and other Everett neighborhoods). Downtown Everett has plenty of restaurants and shops to keep fans busy and full all week.

Everett is also the seat of Snohomish County, which has almost 800,000 residents. It’s also easy driving distance in a region that houses millions of residents along the Cascadia corridor from Portland to Vancouver, and is an easy drive from Spokane, Tri-Cities and Kelowna. A ferry ride connects Victoria and Vancouver Island fans to Anacortes or Tsawwassen, followed by an easy drive to Everett.

In short, there’s no legitimate reason the WHL should prevent Everett and the Silvertips from not just bidding on the 2020 Memorial Cup, but from hosting the tournament itself. If the city and team don’t even show up as a finalist, then the WHL’s entire bidding process should be seen as a sham.

Then again, that would require a belief that the Robison and the WHL actually cares about their US Division teams. This, to many fans of the five American teams, would be seen as a major stretch.

(Photo of Xfinity Arena from author’s Twitter page: @rmarcham)

Farewell, Northlands, and thank you


(Photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken by “WinterE229”)

In a real sense, Northlands Coliseum…er, Rexall Place…is a primary reason why I became a hockey fan.

It was the success of the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers that led to the move of the original Oil Kings to Portland, where they became the Winterhawks. My love of hockey was born of being a fan of some incredible teams in the late 1970s and 1980s, including the 1983 Memorial Cup champions.

But as I was learning more about the game in that time, I learned about the Oilers and that the Oil Kings struggled mightily as the WHA team became more successful. At some point, I adopted the Oilers as my pro team, following them vicariously through the sports pages as they went through their final WHA season, then on into the NHL.

While Memorial Coliseum was my local hockey home, it was the Northlands, almost 1,000 miles away, where my focus lay on many nights. As luck would have it, the Oilers made the last WHL Final in 1979, and after a tough first year in the NHL, made the playoffs in 1980 and started the legendary run that led to five Stanley Cups and an amazing amount of memories. I may have been one of the few in Portland (and, later in Seattle) that celebrated those Cups mightily.

Some nights, it was a struggle to get any updates on games. But when all was right, I would get lucky and hear Rod Phillips welcoming listeners to the Northlands and Oilers hockey. While I would get the Canucks, Kings and (after 1980) Flames on a more regular basis on their big AM radio stations, it was when they would play the Oilers when I would do just about anything to listen. When they were in Edmonton, at Northlands, it sounded like, and felt like, a different game.

Much has happened since the dynasty, of course. The Gretzky trade, the Messier trade, various coaches and players who passed through Northlands in the 26 years since the last Cup. The Coliseum has also been through many changes, including to its name (Edmonton Coliseum, Skyreach Centre, Rexall Place). It wasn’t a pretty building on the outside by any means, and it has been rebuilt on the inside a few times, now looking nothing like what it did during the glory years.

There have been times when the Oilers’ future has looked very bleak, of course. There was Peter Pocklington’s flirtation with Minnesota, the near-sale and move to Houston, Daryl Katz’ tour of Seattle…at times it seemed like the Oilers were not long for Edmonton and Northlands. But they’re still there, and the memories of decades of Oilers hockey, the very good and the very bad, are based in that place.

But all things come to an end, and it’s never more so than with sports stadiums. The places where I began my fandom of many teams are just history now. The Pittsburgh Pirates going from Three Rivers to PNC Park, Arsenal shifting from Highbury to the Emirates, the BC Lions from Empire Stadium to BC Place and the 49ers going from Candlestick to Santa Clara. But some places remain, like Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. Some are even still used, such as the legendary home of the Portland Timbers, Providence Park, and Rexall Place in Edmonton.

That changes April 6, when the Oilers play their final game at the legendary arena. No, I never made it there. On a couple of occasions I actually bought game tickets and was ready to head to Edmonton, but circumstances meant I wasn’t able to make it. It’s still one of the things I do regret, that I never made it to Northlands to see an Oilers game. Maybe, at some point, I’ll make it to the new Rogers-named arena in downtown Edmonton and see the Oilers once more in person. Not sure when, but I’ll make it.

And it will always be Northlands to me. Not Edmonton Coliseum, not Rexall Place, and certainly not Skyreach Centre. Some of the best, and wildest, hockey I ever saw was played in that building. The highs of the Cups wins, the lows of the crushing playoff losses, the great teams and the horrible teams, the beauty of hockey being played by legendary players for the Oilers and others…heck, the Winterhawks even won a WHL title in Northlands over the new Oil Kings. So many memories.

And this is where it all ends. Another bad Oilers season is about over, and the new Rogers Place will be open by time the new season begins in October. It’s the end of 42 years at Northlands, not quite as long as the Edmonton Gardens stood, but with all the history one can ever hope for in an arena. It’s the end of a chapter for people in Edmonton, and the end of a major chapter in my hockey life. This is probably just like how Canadiens fans felt losing the Forum, Leafs fans losing Maple Leaf Gardens, Bruins fans losing Boston Garden, etc. History is but a memory, but when it’s good, it’s the best memory of all.

And with that, I raise a glass to Northlands Coliseum. Yes, you’re known as Rexall Place now, and you’ve been called other names, as well. But what happened within your walls, the great and the bad, is a big part of my life as a sports fan, as a hockey fan, as an Oilers fan. Your first name will always be the one I know you as.

Thank you, Northlands. You’ve done well.

Tukwila NHL arena news will reshape Seattle arena debate


In one moment on Monday morning, the entire arena debate in Seattle changed.

Maybe the entire sporting landscape in the Puget Sound region did, as well.

When ESPN’s Craig Custance posted on Monday morning that Ray Bartoszek’s RLB Holdings Sports and Entertainment had filed a request for a zoning code interpretation with the city of Tukwila, with the intent of building an arena in the city, that woke up hockey fans across the region. Suddenly, the long-awaited alternative to the painfully-slow arena process in Seattle had arrived. Custance said that the zoning request was filed last Wednesday, with the SEPA application (basically, the start of an environmental impact study) to be filed by Friday. Tukwila officials said that Bartoszek’s group first approached the city about the arena site early in 2014.

Oh, and the arena would be privately-funded, too. That’s a big point and crucial to the coming process.

If the name Ray Bartoszek rings a bell, that’s because he was part of the ownership group that almost brought the National Hockey League to Seattle in 2013. The then-Phoenix Coyotes were one Glendale City Council vote away from being sold to Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza, who would have moved the team to Seattle and have them play in KeyArena for three seasons as a new arena was built. He’s stayed in contact with the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman since, and as Bettman wants a team in the Seattle area, this could be a major step towards that.

While both Tukwila officials and Bartoszek emphasized to Custance that it is still early in the process, with Bartoszek calling the current situation a “potential real estate project”, the intent is there. A possible arena in Tukwila was now not just a thought, but steps are being taken to make it a reality. The date mentioned for a possible opening for an arena is the fall of 2017, about the time any new NHL expansion teams would likely start playing. So, likely, that date being mentioned has a larger meaning, and maybe an end date for any NHL team starting in the Seattle area.

Maybe the biggest surprise from what we learned on Monday morning was the planned location for the arena. For months, the assumed arena site in Tukwila was believed to be the “Sabey site”, land owned by David Sabey at the south end of Boeing Field, just inside the Tukwila city limits on the border with Seattle. This was the one mentioned in previous articles.

But the site Bartoszek is working on is not that location. Instead, his arena location is on the east side of the city, south of I-405 and between the West Valley Highway and the former Longacres site, just north of the recently remodeled Tukwila Amtrak/Sounder station. It’s in an area that Tukwila has designated as a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) area, planning to make it an area where public transit, such as Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter rail line, Metro Transit’s RapidRide bus rapid transit system and other Metro routes (all of which serve the arena site, or run close to it) could easily serve employers in the area. An arena would benefit from solid transit, as traffic on I-405 around the West Valley Highway interchange, and around Southcenter to the west and Renton to the east, can get very congested.

What’s not at the location is Sound Transit’s Central Link light rail line. That goes through the Sabey site, and Tukwila’s light rail station is on the far west side of the city, along Highway 99 and near Sea-Tac Airport. So a direct transit connection from and to Seattle, outside of the Sounder, is out of the equation for the time being. That might become an issue down the line.

The timing of the Tukwila arena news doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for Chris Hansen’s proposed arena in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, south of Safeco Field, is to be released on May 7. With that process being drawn out for years, with opposition from the Seattle Mariners and the Port of Seattle starting to be known again, the anticipation on what the FEIS will say, and what timelines that the city of Seattle puts on the next phases of the project will be crucial to whether it even can get to the point of considering a date to break ground. The news from Tukwila now puts a lot of pressure on the process, especially on the point where construction of the SoDo arena could only start when an NBA team was gained. It forces the city, and Hansen, to take more seriously the need to allow the arena to proceed if it’s the NHL that comes to Seattle first.

That’s where the pressure goes up on Vince Coleman, as well. He’s been negotiating with Hansen on trying to get the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) changed from only allowing the arena to be built if Hansen brought the NBA back to Seattle. He’s been in constant contact with Bettman on the arena situation, and there was a time when it seemed like progress was being made. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who was seen at the beginning of his term by some as anti-hockey, had even begun to soften his stance on a possible NHL-first MOU change.

But Coleman hasn’t been heard from recently, and the state of his negotiations with Hansen is still unknown. Much of this hinges on what the FEIS says when released next week, but Coleman needs to let Seattle fans know that he’s still interested in bringing the NHL to Seattle. He needs to be talking to Murray and the Seattle City Council, trying to get the MOU changed so it can be NHL-first. He needs to be seen, or announce some sort of action that tells NHL fans in the region that he’s still in the race. Otherwise, he will be seen as out of the picture, and Bartoszek becomes the only one with Bettman’s ear. Then again, with Monday’s news, and that Custance’s story mentioned that Bettman will talk to the NHL Board of Governors about Bartoszek’s plans, he may already be the only one.

If the NHL arena plans in Tukwila gets on a fast track, that likely means the SoDo arena project becomes much less likely. And much of the blame has to go to Hansen, as his attempts to bring the NBA back to Seattle seem to have done more harm than good, on many fronts. His failed attempts to buy the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks may have ticked off a number of NBA owners, and the NBA keeps saying that there’s no plan to put a team in Seattle anytime in the next few years, or even within the decade (if at all).

The tide has already turned against Hansen, at least from one front. King County Council member Pete Von Reichbauer told KOMO NewsRadio’s Charlie Harger that Bartoszek’s arena plan in Tukwila was better, and with Steve Ballmer’s purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers, he believed that Hansen no longer had the money to get an NBA team or to build an arena. He also believed that Tukwila was a better location than SoDo for the arena. Since King County is also involved in the SoDo arena process, if Van Reichbauer is expressing the majority opinion of the county council, that’s a massive blow to Hansen.

That Hansen made the exact same mistake that Barry Ackerley made in 1990 likely led to a similar result, only coming much faster. It was Ackerley who killed the hopes of an NHL expansion team at that time when he bailed out on the prospective ownership group and struck a deal with the city of Seattle to remodel the Seattle Center Coliseum into a basketball-centric arena, which became KeyArena. It can be argued that the end of the Sonics in Seattle began with that decision, as it meant KeyArena couldn’t make the money it needed to make a profit and helped give the NBA the first excuses it needed to say that the building was obsolete, and gave the city a reason to let the team go away.

Hansen never learned from that. Insisting on making the MOU NBA-first was a monumental mistake, but it came at a time when he was making many in the region believe that he could…no, he would…bring the Sonics back. The excitement was very high, and it seemed like Hansen could do no wrong. He got the deal he wanted from Seattle and King County, and it seemed like a matter of time before the arena in SoDo would be built, even if the Mariners and the Port of Seattle came out strongly against it. The M’s even took a massive public relations hit for opposing the arena, and that played into Hansen’s favor, as well.

But Hansen also said that he had no interest in hockey, and that the NBA was his sole focus. Even the rendering of the arena in a hockey set-up seemed half-hearted, as many pointed out that the proposed look lacked player benches and penalty boxes. He said that he wanted hockey to be a part of the arena project, but he himself wanted anything to do with a team. Someone else had to get the hockey team to become his tenant. It was only after it became more apparent that the NBA still had no interest in Seattle, and that the NHL still had strong interest, that Hansen started to talk with possible owners. For a time Jeremy Roenick was connected with Hansen, but that soon went away.

Eventually, it became clear that the lack of an NHL-first plan for the SoDo arena would be the Achilles heel of the entire project. That Bartoszek and Lanza were so close to moving the Coyotes to Seattle in 2013, maybe closer than Hansen had been with the Kings, added to the angst. It was clear that Hansen was seemingly living in a dreamland where the NBA would still allow him to bring back the Sonics, even when the evidence was increasingly against him.

Meanwhile, the arena FEIS dragged on. First it was supposed to come out in late 2014, then early 2015. Then Murray announced a date of May 7, and it seemed like the arena might finally make a little progress. But all outside of Hansen, and maybe some on the City Council, had come to realize that there would be no new Seattle arena unless the MOU allowed for NHL-first. Hopes were raised when the news that Hansen had started negotiating with Coleman on a possible NHL-first plan, but that was back in 2014. Not much has come out since, and if Tukwila gains momentum, then the idea of an arena in SoDo is all but dead. Then Hansen would have to deal with Bartoszek if he wanted an arena for the Sonics, and he would be dealing from a position of weakness. And, in the end, he can only blame himself.

That Bartoszek’s group would build the arena in Tukwila with no public money works against Hansen, as well. The SoDo arena plan is based on Seattle and King County chipping in about $200 million (the county contributing $80 million if the NHL was involved, $5 million if not), with Hansen paying the money back in installments. Some on the Seattle City Council have been hesitant to support giving Hansen that money, and if Tukwila ends up approving a privately-financed arena there, then the anti-arena forces on the council could kill it right there. Monday’s news may already have the Seattle arena project closer to not happening, even with the FEIS coming out on May 7.

And what about the other proposed arena location in the Puget Sound region, in Bellevue? No news has come out of there since the site at 116th Avenue NE and NE 4th Street since it was mentioned in February, but the car dealership at that location burned in a massive 3-alarm fire on Saturday. That puts the future of the site in doubt, but with the news from Tukwila, any arena plans that may be in the works could be dead very quickly.

Which brings us back to Monday’s news, the news of Ray Bartoszek’s possible arena plan for the east side of Tukwila. That Gary Bettman will be mentioning those plans at the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in June, along with the Las Vegas season ticket drive, is a massive endorsement for Bartoszek. That the fall of 2017 was mentioned as the earliest opening date for the arena is also big, as that would be the earliest any NHL expansion teams would begin play. The dream of the NHL coming to the Seattle area, a dream that was supposed to happen in 1976, and was supposed to happen again in the early 1990s, may actually be back on track.

It will take a while to know if it is. But, for today, the hopes of hockey fans across the Puget Sound region just got raised significantly.

And Ray Bartoszek may become what Chris Hansen wanted to be. The arena builder.

The Monster Hides in the Darkness

The Monster hides in the darkness, always out of sight.
But you know The Monster is always there, day or night.
The Monster is patient, willing to wait things out.
It is always ready to strike, ready for the next bout.

The Monster knows your weaknesses, knows your strengths.
To take advantage of you, The Monster will go to great lengths.
The power of The Monster is strong, for it has the greater might.
The challenge of every day is to defeat The Monster, to win the fight.

The darkness you live in, the fear is always strong.
The time you’ve fought The Monster, it is very long.
There are the battles where you’ve held back The Monster, had it on the edge.
There are the battles where The Monster gets close to pushing you off the ledge.

There are those who say they are willing to help, ready for the bout.
But The Monster has planted that big piece of doubt.
Are you willing to trust? Are you willing to let them come in?
Because The Monster works hard to keep you from the win.

When the battles are won, the excitement is strong.
But The Monster never goes away for long.
And when suddenly things turn for the worse, when another struggle begins,
The Monster comes back and starts the battle again.

You look for help, you see those around you.
You have the hope that there is much that they can do.
But The Monster knows you’re weak, knows it’s ready to atone.
The Monster plants the doubt, that you really are alone.

Some who don’t know, those would rather not care,
Say that it’s all in your head, that The Monster is not there.
But it’s in your head that the battle rages on,
Where you fight to not be The Monster’s pawn.

Then comes the moments, when the battle reaches its peak,
When The Monster goes in for the finale, hoping you are meek.
You feel lost, you don’t know what to do, you have that deep fear.
You try to fight off The Monster, fighting for everything you hold dear.

The battle never ends, The Monster always is ready to fight.
The battle never ends, you have to go with all your might.
Even when there seems to be no hope, when all might go away,
You think about what might happen, then you try to find a way.

Because when you are weak, that’s when you have to be strong.
You have to beat The Monster, it doesn’t matter how long
It takes, because the battle is one that is always about to start.
You and The Monster are never that far apart.

And when it is all at its darkest, when you feel long you can go on,
That’s when you have to say, the conclusion isn’t foregone.
Because The Monster wants you to feel that, wants you to have no hope.
You have to resist that final act, to fight it off, to say, nope.

Otherwise, The Monster wins.