The NHL and Seattle: The History and Market


Sports fans in the Pacific Northwest have been desperate for a professional basketball team to return after the Sonics were ripped away to Oklahoma City a few years ago. While hockey isn’t as popular as basketball in Seattle or its surrounding areas, there are a lot of diehard hockey fans in the Seattle area.

The Vancouver Canucks play up the highway about two hours, and the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League have been a mainstay in the city for decades.

Chris Hansen Seattle PI

The most significant hurdle for a potential NHL organization in Seattle revolves around two issues – finding an owner with deep pockets, and having an arena. Yesterday, the Seattle city council approved an agreement with San Francisco hedge fund manager Chris Hansen (pictured to your right), who has made it his mission to bring a state-of-the-art basketball/hockey arena to the Seattle area. Hansen has deep pockets, is a passionate sports fan, and was born and raised in Seattle.

The History of Hockey in Seattle

Seattle’s hockey tradition extends back almost 100 years. In 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup. Their success was short-lived, however, as the team folded in 1924.

Hockey returned to Seattle after WWII with the Seattle Ironmen (a great name, by the way). The team went through two more name changes (the Bombers and the Americans) before emerging as the Seattle Totems (another great name).

The Totems played in Seattle from 1958 until 1975. They were a part of the Western Hockey league until their last season, when they joined the Central Hockey League. The Totems won three WHL championships between 1958 and 1967. The most notable moment for the franchise was n a two-game series against the Soviet Red Army team in 1973. The Totems lost the first contest andwon the second.

Seattle’s relationship with the NHL developed in the 1970s. Vince Abbey, a local businessman, hoped to bring the NHL to Seattle, but he was unable to secure the proper funding. The WHL folded, and the Totems joined the CHL. 1975 marked the first time that the city of Seattle had no professional hockey in two decades.

Hockey returned two years later, as the Kamloops Chiefs of the Western Canada Hockey League moved to Seattle and became the Breakers. The WCHL was a junior A league, featuring players between the ages of 14 20. It was renamed the Western Hockey League in 1978, a name it still holds to this day. The Breakers became the Thunderbirds under new owners in 1985.

Seattle’s second go-around with the NHL came in 1990. The city, once again, hoped to secure an expansion bid. Due to some strange actions on the part of the Seattle bid team, their bid for an expansion team was removed, and the NHL awarded teams to Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

The Key Arena, home to the Sonics, was renovated in 1995. The renovations mad the arena unusable for NHL hockey, as there were only 10,000 unobstructed seats with an NHL-sized ice rink in place. The Key arena worked for basketball, but not for hockey, and the NHL dream in Seattle died once again.

The Thunderbirds played at the Key Arena until 2009, when they moved into their own arena in Kent, Washington (south of Seattle). The Thunderbirds haven’t been a powerhouse in the WHL, but they have been a good team. Notable alumni include Patrick Marleau, Ken Daneyko, Chris Osgood, Brooks Laich, Mark Parrish, and Brenden Witt.

The Market

Chris Hansen, self-admittedly, is more of a basketball guy. However, there would be no shortage of suitors who would love to bring an NHL team to Seattle to play in Hansen’s arena. Chicago Wolves (AHL) owner Don Levin would be at the top of that list.

“It’s probably the best market in the United States that does not have a hockey team demographically.”

Assuming Seattle gets an NBA team at some point in the next few years – would they be able to support a team from each of the four major sports organizations? The NFL’s Seattle Seahawks are one of the hottest tickets in pro sports, while the Seattle Mariners have seen their on-field struggles reflected in sagging attendance numbers.

The current metro-area population of Seattle is about 3.5 million. A Seattle real estate analystattempted to see if the market would be able to support two more teams. For his analysis, he included the Seattle Storm of the WNBA and the Seattle Sounders of the MLS as professional sports teams.

Given six professional sports organizations, the population of greater Seattle would be about 600,000 people per team. That number would place Seattle second lowest in the entire nation, ahead of only Denver. For comparisons sake, the New York area (11 major sports franchises) has a per-team population of 1.7 million.


The national average (comprised of 28 cities) works out to a population of 1.1 million per team. The Seattle market would be extremely sports-saturated under this comparison. But would the WNBA and MLS really count as major sports organizations? In Seattle, the MLS is a big draw, so the inclusion makes sense. The Sounders routinely sell upwards of 40,000 tickets to their home games, played at CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seahawks.

When sports in Seattle come to mind, you likely think of Ken Griffey Junior, Gary Payton, Ichiro, and Matt Hasselbeck. However, the city has a significant number of passionate hockey fans. The WHL’s Thunderbirds play in Seattle, and many of their league rivals play in surrounding towns in the state of Washington.

Seattle councilperson Mike O’Brien was surprised at the number of hockey fans he encountered when the arena deal was in its final stages. Seattle is the 14th largest television market in the United States, and of the cities ahead of them on the list, only Atlanta and Houston don’t have NHL teams (Houston does have the AHL’s Aeros, though).

“I’m surprised to learn how many people in Seattle, when I’ve talked to them over the last few months, say ‘I couldn’t care less about the NBA, it would be great to get an NHL team in here. Seattle is growing and a lot of people from the Midwest and Northeast grew up playing hockey in school and on frozen lakes.”

There are a lot of hockey fans in Seattle. But can the area support two more professional sports teams? That remains to be seen. However, the most significant hurdle (an arena) is no longer standing in the way of the NHL finally making its way to the Pacific Northwest.