Natural Rivalries Making Hockey A Passion Here

Talk about strangers in paradise. . . .

The top executives of Canada's junior hockey leagues - from here to Quebec - gathered at the Westin Hotel yesterday to talk about May's Memorial Cup tournament here, the junior version of the Stanley Cup.

Except the real news wasn't the near-70-degree weather, the poached salmon or the Memorial Cup, but rather the extraordinary popularity of Canada's game in America.

Plainly, the fans like the game twice as much in Seattle as they do in Saskatoon, twice as much in Spokane as in Swift Current.

"Phenomenal," said Ed Chynoweth, president of the Western Hockey League. "That's the only way I know to explain it."

The five Northwest teams in the WHL - Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Portland and the Tri-Cities - have drawn more fans this year than the 11 WHL teams in Canada.

The junior game - amateurs from 16 to 20 years of age trying to play their way into the NHL - has exploded in this corner of the world.

"I'll tell you," Chynoweth said, "there isn't a day go by that we don't look for two more Northwest cities to add to the league. We'd love to be in Eugene, Boise, Yakima and Bellingham if any of them had buildings for hockey."

Russ Williams, president of the Seattle Thunderbirds, shook his head.

"The popularity and growth of the game here is viewed with amazement in Canada," he said. "Amazement and envy."

Seattle's Thunderbirds are playing to 83 percent capacity in their two homes with an aggregate average of 6,600 fans per game, not only more than either of the University of Washington basketball teams, but easily the best in the WHL.

The next four top draws also are in the United States: Portland at 4,900, Tri-Cities at 4,800 and Tacoma at 4,500.

Sure, these are bigger cities with bigger arenas than many of the Canadian prairie venues. But Saskatoon and Regina, for example, are the size of Spokane, and much bigger than the Tri-Cities. Moreover, they are absolute hockey citadels.

So what has happened?

The game doesn't change between Canada and the U.S., but the fans do.

"In the United States," said Williams, a native of Medicine Hat, Alberta, "the game is an event, a happening. In Canada, it often has the excitement of a seminar."

In Canada, real fans sit up high, away from the center of the ice, so they can see the skating better. In the United States, fans crowd the rink, enthralled by the speed and savagery of the game.

Ticket prices one-fourth the cost of those for NHL and NBA games undoubtedly stimulate fan interest in junior hockey, but so do natural Northwest rivalries that are realized in no other sport.

"People in Tacoma love the idea of getting a chance to play Seattle," Chynoweth said.

Although Portland established itself in the early 1980s as a generous home for junior hockey, Canadians thought it a U.S. aberration. The breakthrough came in Seattle, where junior hockey established a second and eventually more important outpost.

Bill Yuill of Medicine Hat bought the hapless Seattle franchise in 1988. He improved the quality of coaches and players; but, most important, he put up the money to buy the equipment to move the team into the Coliseum.

Games with Portland quickly evoked memories of the WHL of the 1960s, when the Seattle Totems played the Portland Buckaroos. Then rivalries with Spokane, and the Tri-Cities were established and, finally, this season with Tacoma.

By the time Seattle and Tacoma complete their 10 regular-season matchups this season, they should have drawn more than 100,000 people.

Two crowds at the Tacoma Dome topped 15,000, both by far the largest in junior-hockey history.

"What made this work was the willingness of Seattle to let expansion happen in Tacoma," Chynoweth said. "They could have blocked it, but they saw the wisdom of having a rival."

The league showed some wisdom as well when it didn't cripple Tacoma as an expansion team, not the way the NHL did with San Jose or baseball will do in Miami and Denver. Indeed, it gave the team two additional 20-year-old players and made it a competitive entry.

The Rockets' average attendance of 4,600 is nearly the same reported by the Tacoma Stars, the indoor soccer team. Rocket President Bruce Hamilton believes the two compete more for weekend dates than they do for fans.

"We are after a blue-collar, hard-working fan who wants to see his or her team play against Seattle and Portland, something soccer can't offer," Hamilton said.

Hockey officials don't know exactly what to make of the robust, rowdy U.S. crowds, but they know they pay hard-earned money to have fun.

"What I've learned," said Hamilton, a Canadian, "is that you have to entertain these people. If they want to stand up and yell and bang on the glass, there is no reason to say no."

Blaine Newnham's column usually is published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Sports section of The Times.