Before the Thorns, Portland had a Power surge

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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.)

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

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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

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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)

What’s next? The continuing ripple effects of Dempsey-to-Seattle

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Clint Dempsey, playing for the US National Team against Belgium on May 29, 2013 in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of Flickr member Erik Daniel Drost.

Five days later, the shock waves are still being felt. Very likely, the Clint Dempsey situation will continue to be a topic for weeks, with many questions yet to be answered.

As Dempsey made his first appearance in training for the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday, it was beginning to look like he would make his debut in Toronto on Saturday. When he steps onto the pitch at BMO Field, a new era in Major League Soccer begins.

Much has been written on the Twitter frenzy that tipped everyone off that the Dempsey-Sounders deal was possibly happening. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl wrote a fantastic article on how MLS and the Sounders put together the deal, and it raised as many questions as it does answers. The talk about how things went down, and its after effects, will go on for months.

Of course, the deal also shook up the Seattle sports landscape. After all, when was the last time a superstar in his sport chose Seattle for his professional home? Ichiro Suzuki was a big star in Japan, but when he came to Seattle in 2001, he was an unknown on this side of the Pacific. Think about the last major free agent, seen as a major star in their sport and in the prime of their career, who decided to sign with the Seahawks, Mariners or Sonics. There probably is one somewhere that I have forgotten, but the point is that it doesn’t happen often.

Now that the Sounders have Dempsey, what’s next? First of all, they have to figure out where Dempsey fits in with the club’s two other big scorers, Eddie Johnson and Oba Martins. Johnson would likely adjust quickly, as he’s played with Dempsey on the US Men’s National Team for a number of years. Martins would have to adjust a little for Dempsey’s style, but having Johnson around will help Martins get used to his new teammate’s on-field traits.

Not being in the CONCACAF Champions League for 2013-14 and being eliminated early in the US Open Cup may be a help for the Sounders. They can concentrate on making the MLS playoffs, and that they have between 2-4 games in hand on the six clubs above them in the Western Conference standings, a good run could quickly put them near the top of the standings. That also would get them in a better position for a run at the MLS Cup, a major reason why Dempsey was brought to Seattle.

The first big match for the Sounders in the Dempsey Era is likely in Houston on August 17. Not only would it be a homecoming for Dempsey, who is from east Texas, but the Dynamo are much like the Sounders in fighting for playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Add on what will likely be a hot and humid night, and it will be a big challenge for Seattle.

Of course, the one match everyone is pointing to is the Cascadia clash against Portland on August 25. It will be on ESPN2, it will have a crowd that could get close to the MLS single-game record for size and the anticipation and pressure will be high for Dempsey and the Sounders to perform. Their one advantage will be rest, as the Timbers will have played Real Salt Lake at home four nights before.

What will be on the line will go beyond just a win. Of course, there’s Cascadia bragging rights, with a win by either side jumping them past Vancouver in the Cascadia Cup standings. There’s the playoff implications, with both clubs battling to make the postseason. A Seattle win becomes the springboard for the rest of the season. A draw, and status quo holds for another week. A loss, and the critiques of the Sounders, and of head coach Sigi Schmidt, will renew.

A lot on the line for the Sounders over the next few weeks, climaxing with that Portland match. It will be interesting to see how the club plays and whether they can take advantage of the big talent now wearing #2 in the Rave Green.

Failure is not an option.

NHL expansion: Seattle and…who else?

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Seattle’s KeyArena, the likely temporary home for an NHL team in the Emerald City. (Wikimedia Commons photo by “paulyb6″)

Hockey fans in the Pacific Northwest got a major jolt on Tuesday night, and they could be excused if they have started dreaming of pucks in KeyArena again.

A series of tweets by Mitch Levy, the long-time morning host on Seattle sports station KJR, indicated that Commissioner Gary Bettman was getting ready to recommend that the NHL place an expansion team in Seattle for the 2014-15 season. It would obviously depend on an ownership group coming together quickly and that the planned arena in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood is still on track, meaning an adjustment to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) so that the arena could start construction with an NHL team on deck, not just an NBA team.

If this pans out, that means Seattle would be the 31st team in the NHL. They would quickly go into the Pacific Division and be its eighth team. But to balance out scheduling, the NHL would likely need another team to come in at the same time.

But which cities could be ready to host the NHL right away? The obvious choice is Quebec City, as it is already building a new arena and still has Colisee Pepsi (the former home of the Nordiques) available for a temporary basis. Quebec wants the NHL back badly, and with the financial backing of Quebecor, one of Canada’s largest media companies, they may be able to be ready to put something together quickly.

Other cities often mentioned for possible NHL expansion and/or relocation likely couldn’t be ready for 2014. Kansas City, Las Vegas, Houston and a second Toronto team likely couldn’t be ready in time with organization or investors.

Which gives us what may be the wild card in all of this: Portland. Paul Allen is now very interested in the NHL, according to reports from the Rose City. He owns the Rose Garden, which already meets NHL specifications and could host a team tomorrow. That in itself is important, as there would be no lease issues to deal with. While Allen was at one point not keen on an NHL team, especially after he came so close to buying the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999 and moving them to Portland.

Allen was supposedly involved in talks about the future of the Phoenix Coyotes, and while he never made an offer, Allen is now convinced again that the NHL could work in Portland and be a viable partner with the Trail Blazers in the Rose Garden. Having an owner like Allen in the mix could be very attractive for the NHL, and this is where it could get interesting.

The NHL has long wanted a team in the Pacific Northwest. They’ve also seen how huge the Cascadia rivalry of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver has been for MLS & how those matches have become must-see games, even for some non-soccer fans. There’s also two fewer teams in the new Western divisions than in the East.

Would the NHL take a chance and put teams in both Seattle AND Portland? Would the league push away a guaranteed money machine in Quebec for hopes of an instant rivalry on the ice in Cascadia? This is a big question, and if Bettman wants two teams for 2014-15, and Seattle has to be one of those two teams, then Quebec and Portland could be the only obvious choices for the second team. Quebec would be the heavy favorite, but Portland, with Paul Allen involved, could be a major factor when all is done.

It will be an interesting few months for the NHL as they look to expand. What direction the league goes, who gets the teams and when they will start could be decided in that time.

Time to sit back and see how it all plays out.

Watching the low-key beginning to Arlo White’s American adventure

There are times when you don’t realize that you’re at the beginning of something special, when you’re about to see someone’s career take off.

A grey, rainy day in 2010 was one of those days.

It was early February, and I was among a number of soccer fans gathered at the George & Dragon Pub in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood to watch some Champions League action. As one of the clubs playing was Arsenal, I was wearing an Arsenal shirt. I was able to be there because I was working a 4/10, Thursday-Sunday schedule at the time, making the early part of the week my “weekend”.

So, as those of us gathered to order drinks, get into our spots and hopefully see a win, we saw a number of people wearing Seattle Sounders gear, men in suits and some media showing up. A few of us wondered among ourselves about what was up and whether it would interfere with our planned viewing.

As it turned out, everyone was there for an announcement. Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer was announcing the club’s new play-by-play man, and the G&D, maybe the most famous of Seattle’s soccer pubs, was the perfect place to make the announcement.

That’s when Seattle got its first look at Arlo White. The former BBC man had been hired to do the Sounders’ radio and TV simulcasts, bringing a different sound than what Kevin Calabro, the former voice of the Seattle SuperSonics who had been the play-by-play broadcaster for the Sounders that first season. He stood in the pub, mic in hand, talking about the great opportunity and challenge that he was taking on. He was thrilled to be there, and thrilled to be in a pub that felt, well, English.

Then, as quickly as the announcement was made, it was done and everyone associated with it quickly left. The G&D quickly returned to being the site of some Champions League viewing, as many discussed whether Arlo would connect to the Seattle crowd.

I remember thinking that I may have been the only one sitting in the pub who knew who Arlo White was. I remembered him from listening online to BBC Radio, whether hosting on 5 Live or calling a sporting event. He was the BBC’s voice of the Super Bowl, and he had just gotten done with that before coming to Seattle to finalize his deal with the Sounders.

Of course, the rest is history. Arlo did connect with the Seattle crowd, and then some. Soccer fans around the Northwest, and around the country, would make Sounders games required listening and viewing, as White quickly became the most respected and well-known broadcaster in Major League Soccer. His career skyrocketed, as NBC made him their voice of MLS just two years later. Now, just over a year later, he’s moving home to England to become NBC’s voice of the Premier League, realizing his dreams and becoming the perfect voice for the network as it expands its soccer coverage. He’s being replaced by the former voice of the Portland Timbers, John Strong, keeping the large Cascadia influence on national MLS broadcasts.

It’s been an amazing 3+ years for White, as his American adventure has led to the job many in England dream of. He’s also left a broadcasting legacy in Seattle, and in MLS, that’s very tough to follow.

That adventure formally began on a grey February day in a dark pub in Seattle. Little did I know, or anyone else who was there, that we were watching the beginning of a unique era in sportscasting in Seattle.

Dear Mariners fan; it could be worse. Love, Pirates fan

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Pittsburgh’s PNC Park has yet to see a winning baseball team. (Wikimedia Commons photo by “alpineinc”)

A note to fans of the Seattle Mariners: it could be worse. A lot worse.

Seeing the angst of Mariner fans on Twitter, on various websites and among my friends over the past few years has been interesting to watch. A fan base that got spoiled by the glory years of 1995-2003 is now wondering if it will ever get better, and how long it will take to get better.

Honestly, I just laugh at it. You see, I’m a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Buccos haven’t had a winning season since 1992, when Barry Bonds couldn’t throw out Sid Bream in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in Atlanta and the Braves won the pennant. Since then, it has been a lot of bad baseball, management that cared more for the bottom line than what was between the lines and players who brought hope, but then fled to teams with a better chance of winning.

There even was a chance of the Pirates leaving Pittsburgh, but the city then helped build what became PNC Park, a jewel of a ballpark on the north bank of the Allegheny River near the old Three Rivers Stadium site. The Pirates stayed, but so did many years of bad baseball.

But there has been hope the past couple of seasons. The Pirates were in the NL Central race into August in 2011, and even were battling for first when September arrived in 2012. However, collapses in both years not only took away any playoff hopes, but also the chance of ending that record of losing seasons. No team in major American sports has ever had 20 straight losing seasons, but the Pirates do. As fans like myself hope that it won’t be 21, there’s always the little bit of fear in the back of our minds. After all, after the horrid finishes to the last two seasons, just getting Win #82 is still a fantastic fantasy that I hope happens.

I also tend to remind Mariner fans that it’s been this bad before. After all, there was the first 18 years of the franchise’s history to deal with. The M’s didn’t have a winning season until their 15th season in 1991. They got another in 1993, and then the incredible run in 1995 happened.  That may have “saved” major league baseball in Seattle, but more importantly, it gave Seattle fans a taste of success that they enjoyed for many years.

Those glory years also came in the midst of The Streak, as some Pirates fans (including myself) call it. The M’s were making the playoffs at a time when Pirates fans were only dreaming of even getting close to a winning season, when the playoffs were a crazy dream & the team almost left. Fans also had to watch ex-players and managers find success elsewhere, even winning a World Series (Jim Leyland and Bobby Bonilla with the Marlins – painful). Seeing Bonds make the World Series with the Giants was the ultimate insult, and there was no end in sight for The Streak.

These days, the Pirates are a fun team to watch. Andrew McCutchen is one of the best young players in the game, the pitching staff (led by A.J. Burnett) is solid on most nights and it’s actually fun to watch them again. The dreams are no longer of just being competitive past Memorial Day. Now, the dream is of ending The Streak and actually making the playoffs. If the Pirates make the post-season this year, I may be a major pain to a lot of people. After all, 1992, was a long time ago.

So, Seattle baseball fan, while I understand your pain, I also know that it can be a lot worse. You still have 17 years to match where we, as Pirates fans, are at right now.

Will you still be a fan then? Speaking for fans of the Battlin’ Buccos, the Pittsburgh Pirates, those who have stuck with their team even when it has hit rock bottom multiple times, I hope you do.

It makes it sweeter when it happens. Kind of like, of, 1995. If you can remember that far back.