Options limited for any WHL return to Nanaimo

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The arena rumblings are happening again in Nanaimo, and while the Western Hockey League would love to return to the Vancouver Island city, options are very limited.

In particular, the WHL’s fallback strategy of expansion to prevent relocation is likely not an option this time around, as 22 teams is likely the upper limit that the league can handle.

Nanaimo’s most recent move on the arena front is a study that highlights two possible locations for a new events center, one that would hold 5,200-5,700 for hockey and up to 8,000 for concerts and other major events. However, the cost, between $63-$82 million, has city officials hesitant to move forward unless they have a commitment from a WHL team to move to the city, and a financial investment from that team in the arena to ensure they wouldn’t be tempted to move away after a few seasons. That, so far, hasn’t happened.

The WHL has wanted a team in Nanaimo since the league returned to Victoria in 2011. One major reason is saving on travel costs, as a Victoria-Nanaimo weekend can be cheaper than a two-game series in Victoria or, on some major travel weekends, even a single game in Victoria. That Nanaimo is the biggest Canadian market west of Manitoba without a WHL team also plays into the league’s interest in the city.

It has been 34 years since the WHL played its single season in Nanaimo. The Islanders played in the fairly-new Frank Crane Arena for 1982-83 after moving to Vancouver Island from Billings, Montana. But the building was too small, as was fan interest, and the team moved on to New Westminster, becoming the second incarnation of the Bruins for four seasons. The team is now the Tri-City Americans, playing their 30th season in Kennewick this year.

Ironically, the Tri-City franchise and its turbulent past play a direct role in the future of the WHL in Nanaimo. Two of the league’s most recent expansion teams, the Vancouver Giants and Chilliwack Bruins, came into existence because the league wanted to prevent the then-owners of the Americans from moving the team into those cities, but wanted teams in those Lower Mainland markets.

In fact, the WHL’s last four expansion teams came about to prevent franchise shifts. The Everett Silvertips were born after an attempt to move the Seattle Thunderbirds north, and the third edition of the Edmonton Oil Kings came into being so that the Oilers would stop trying to buy teams for the purpose of moving them to Edmonton.

Putting teams in Vancouver, Everett, Chilliwack and Edmonton means the WHL now has 22 teams, two more than the Ontario and Quebec leagues. There’s a belief that the WHL has reached its limit on how many teams it can have, simply because the talent pool in western Canada is getting smaller, and teams often have to battle the NCAA for American players. That the NCAA will accept players from Junior A leagues (like the British Columbia Hockey League and Alberta Junior Hockey League) but not the WHL, OHL or QMJHL also cuts into the talent pool, as players in the BCHL and AJHL are looking as much for NCAA scholarships as a shot at the pros.

This puts the WHL in a tough spot. They can’t expand to Nanaimo, but yet the city won’t likely commit to a new arena unless they are guaranteed a WHL team. Plus, there has been no known local ownership group in Nanaimo looking for a team; relocation, with established owners, looks to be the likely path for the league returning to Nanaimo.

Any new WHL team in Nanaimo would likely have to play in Frank Crane Arena for at least a couple of seasons while the new arena is built. The former home of the WHL Islanders is still busy, being the home of the BCHL’s Clippers and just having gone through a needed remodel a few years ago. It seats about 2,400, with standing room likely moving it towards 3,000. Good for a BCHL team, but nowhere near good enough for the WHL in a market like Nanaimo.

Back to the talent pool for a moment…if that wasn’t an issue, could the WHL expand to 24 teams? Possibly. There have been rumblings that the owners of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and AHL’s Manitoba Moose have looked at possibly trying to add a WHL team to its portfolio. There’s been talk of a WHL-ready arena being built in Lloydminster, Alberta that would hold 7,500. Newish arenas in Penticton, BC and Wenatchee, WA would be tempting to an owner, and both are among the best drawing teams in the BCHL. The move of the Vancouver Giants to suburban Langley eliminated any thoughts, for the time being, of either Abbotsford and Chilliwack being mentioned for a WHL team.

But if relocation is needed to get a team to Nanaimo (or any other market looking for a WHL team), the talk usually centers on the Kootenay Ice. The Cranbrook, BC based team has been at the bottom of WHL attendance for a number of seasons, is at the bottom of attendance this season, and ownership has had the team up for sale for years. There was a report of a Cranbrook-based group looking to buy the team in October, but nothing has come of it.  But as long as they are struggling, and for sale, the Ice will be at the top of the list of WHL teams most likely to move. But, as mentioned earlier, unless they and/or the WHL give a financial commitment to a new arena, a move to Nanaimo is nowhere in their future.

Are there any others? Swift Current and Prince Albert aren’t going anywhere despite of small attendance because they are community owned. The Lethbridge Hurricanes, seemingly on the brink a couple of years ago, have righted the ship & look to be out of trouble for now. New ownership has revitalized the Prince George Cougars, and they’re drawing their biggest crowds in over a decade.

If there’s a wild card, it might be the Vancouver Giants. Yes, they just moved to Langley after playing in the Pacific Coliseum (the former home of the Canucks) for their first 15 seasons. But they are having their worst season ever, so far, in average attendance. Part of that may be the smaller building in Langley, but averaging just about 3,800 in a 5,276-seat arena likely wasn’t what they were looking for. In comparison, their worst-season for attendance at the Coliseum was 2003-04, when they averaged 4,956 per game. Last year, they were drawing 5,169 per game in the Coliseum, and that probably does look worse in a 16,000-seat arena (even with the upper level curtained off) than 3,800 does in a 5,276 seat building. The Giants have time, but if the crowds keep getting smaller in Langley, then some hard questions have to be asked.

(If you’re curious, Langley’s BCHL team, the Rivermen, average just 635 fans a game so far this season after having to accommodate the Giants and move from the Langley Events Centre to the much, much smaller George Preston Recreation Centre [formerly the Langley Civic Centre]. That’s 4th worst in the BCHL.)

The Giants’ move to Langley also effectively blocked any WHL team from considering Abbotsford, with its 7,000-seat arena still seeking a main tenant since the AHL’s Heat moved, or Chilliwack, where the BCHL’s Chiefs play in the arena that was enlarged for the WHL’s Bruins. Ironically, the original Chilliwack Chiefs moved to Langley when the Bruins moved into the Prospera Centre, and the new Chiefs moved in when the Bruins moved to Victoria to become the Royals in 2011 (and blocking a likely move by the AHL to put a team in the BC capital to couple up with Abbotsford…it all feels like a circle, doesn’t it?).

It was the Victoria Royals that got the WHL interested in Nanaimo again. Arena talk has gone on for a few years, and it’s taken a long while to even get to the point where a study has taken place. But the slow pace of the arena process, plus the city’s insistence that the WHL and/or a new Nanaimo team have a financial stake in the arena, ensures that it will still be a long time before the league returns. Both sides will want guarantees, and that means long negotiations are still ahead.

However, with 22 teams and expansion likely not viable, it may be the only way for the WHL to get back to Nanaimo. Patience, for the league and for those in Nanaimo, will still be needed.

(Photo of Nanaimo, BC by Ken Walker, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.)

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

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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

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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

Xfinity_arena_everett

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)

How TV rating systems shortchange some sports

I was reading an article not long ago about how Major League Soccer still lags behind in TV ratings, with smallish numbers compared to other sports, and it got me wondering.

Can TV ratings ever be accurate for sporting events?

At this point, I don’t think so. That’s simply because the viewing habits of sports fans have been changing drastically in recent years.

One has to remember that those ratings only count those watching an event from home. While that’s a fairly accurate way to gauge how many watch a comedy, drama or some other recorded event, it’s not an effective way to figure out how many people are watching a specific sporting event.

The first problem is that the rating systems don’t count televisions outside of the home. With a growing amount of people opting to head to bars, pubs, restaurants or other establishments to watch games, that means a large number of viewers will never be counted towards the ratings. This especially hurts the ratings for sports such as hockey and soccer, where fans tend to prefer being at gatherings to watch games with friends instead of being home by themselves. The games have become social events, but the ratings will never show that.

Another issue is that some fans are increasingly watching games online, whether on a laptop, a mobile device (phone or tablet) or a desktop. Some of these sites do count how many viewers they have at specific times, but those figures are not part of the ratings that executives with television and cable networks are concerned with. It’s still the ratings connected with home viewing.

This affects the bottom line with leagues and networks, as advertisers still rely on the ratings to help determine where they should purchase time to promote their products. The effect is that an advertiser may see that a game in, for example, MLS had around 200,000 viewers according to the published ratings based on home viewing, but the actual number may be many times more than that if those watching in bars and other establishments were able to be counted. But they aren’t, and the advertiser is left with a ratings number that is quite skewed.

This doesn’t just affect the “smaller” sports, either. Imagine what the ratings for the NFL would be if those who watch the games in sports bars and restaurants were counted. Weekly records could easily be set, because the the NFL’s fanbase is so massive. The real viewing number for Sunday night’s 49ers-Seahawks game could be 30 percent more than the already-high published ratings, simply because of where people watched the games.

There’s no real solution to the issue, of course. Until Nielsen or some other company develops a way to count the TVs in a sports bar set to specific games, the ratings for a live sporting event will always be lower than the real number of viewers. Occasionally, for some sports the number will likely be much lower than reality.

But money is connected to those ratings. Networks rely on revenue from advertisers to pay for the contracts with sports leagues. Ad buyers will see the ratings, see that some are low, and then look for another show or event to advertise on.

It’s not a big deal to football and baseball, but it is to hockey and soccer. And nothing can be done about it.

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.