Mekai Sanders is like most kids who grow up playing hockey. The Gig Harbor native, who recently turned 15, has starry-eyed dreams of reaching the top level of the sport and to be like his favorite player Alex Ovechkin. Sanders learned the game on local ice, playing for the Sno-King Junior Thunderbirds, and his dream of playing hockey at a high level took a big step forward this spring when he was selected by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the 2018 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. Seattle didn’t draft Sanders out of the Sno-King program however. They scouted and drafted him off of the Detroit Compuware Bantam team Sanders was playing for this past season. It’s a path that many Seattle area youth hockey players take. In order to develop their game and advance, kids leave the Puget Sound region to find more competitive play.
Leaving home at just 14-years-old is not an easy choice to make and one that Sanders’ mother, Heather Sanders, says wasn’t the original plan. Mekai had been approached by several hockey academies in British Columbia but was still planning on staying local for his Bantam season. In August he heard from Detroit, a program that has produced a slew of NHL players including hall-of-famer Eric Lindros.
That changed things for the Sanders family.
“He was not going to let an opportunity to play for the best team in the country slip through his fingers and we decided we wouldn’t be the ones to stop him,” Heather says of the tough decision. “Mekai packed his bags and never looked back. It was the best decision he could’ve made for himself and heartbreaking for Mom.”
The decision to leave was in no way an indictment of the local youth hockey associations.
“Mekai received exceptional personal training and some great coaching in Seattle,” Heather says. “Washington has some great teams and coaches but there are just not enough high-level teams across the state to compete with. So, the drive to stay competitive for all these kids and parents currently involves weekly trips to Canada, if not multiple trips at times…After years of living in the car and juggling our other children around hockey schedules, Michigan was the best option for Mekai and for us as a family.”
Kids playing baseball, football, and basketball don’t have to leave the Seattle area to get noticed but Hockey players do. That is something that could change once the NHL arrives in the region.
Youth hockey has been available in Seattle for a long time. The Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association has been in operation for over 50 years in the Seattle area. Offering adult and youth hockey, Sno-King had 786 kids playing at various levels for the Junior Thunderbirds this past year.
Sno-King is one of four major youth hockey associations in Puget Sound currently. Along with Seattle Junior Hockey Association, Everett Youth Hockey, and the all-girls Washington Wild there were just over 1,900 kids playing hockey in the Puget Sound region. There are also programs in Kent (Kent Valley Hockey Association), Tacoma (Tacoma Junior Hockey Association), Bremerton (West Sound Minor Hockey), Bellingham (Whatcom County Amateur Hockey) and others throughout the state.
That’s not a huge number of players for a region with the population that Puget Sound boasts, and hockey has mostly been a niche sport in Seattle. The kids that do come out to play find their way to the rink in different ways, including attending local WHL games.
“You get kids all time that go to a T-Birds game and say, ‘I want to be a hockey player, I loved it’,” says Sno-King’s hockey director Doug Kirton. “If you were to take an anecdotal sampling of our association, we have a ton of transplants in the area. We have Canadians, eastern or northern people who have moved here for work and have been exposed to hockey. Most of the people who grew up in the northwest that have joined us, fell into it.”
The Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips have enjoyed a great deal of on-ice success over the past three seasons. Seattle made it to the WHL Championship Series two years in a row, winning it in 2017, while the Silvertips made it to the final series this spring. Despite that, hockey still does not get regular coverage from Seattle’s main stream sports media.
That will change as we get closer to 2020 and the NHL’s arrival.
Once families see a game, whether in person or on television, more kids will want to play the sport. To see proof of this, you merely need to look at the growth of hockey in other non-traditional markets throughout the country.
When you think of hockey, California doesn’t jump to mind first. However, with three NHL teams in state, youth hockey has grown to some impressive heights. In 1992, USA Hockey reported it had a total of 14,032 players of all ages – including adults – registered in the Pacific region, which includes California, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. At the end of the 2018 season, California alone had 14,886 players under the age of 18. Washington State had just 3,716 youth players registered at the end of the 2018 season.
Hockey didn’t just accidentally grow in California. With the Kings already in Los Angeles, the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991, followed by the Anaheim Ducks in 1993. It’s no coincidence that youth hockey has grown since then.
“If you look (at NHL teams in non-traditional markets), they all have embraced the local hockey scene because they have to grow the game” Kirton says. “They’ve got to build that culture from the ground up.”
The hope is that the same growth can happen in Seattle.
It didn’t happen overnight in California, but more kids have started to play thanks to the NHL’s presence. The more kids you have playing, the more competitive your associations become, and eventually you start to produce pro prospects.
The Kings, Ducks, and Sharks all have partnered with local hockey associations and have created large and competitive programs. Some of the kids that have come through those programs have ended up playing in the Northwest. Former Tri-City Americans goalie, and Winnipeg Jets prospect, Eric Comrie played for the Junior Kings, as did current Everett Silvertips goalie Dustin Wolf. Coming off an impressive rookie campaign, Wolf seems ready to take over for the departed Carter Hart in Everett. Seattle’s playoff hero from two seasons ago, Carl Stankowski, honed his craft playing for the Junior Ducks in Anaheim. Thunderbirds forward Blake Bargar hails from Torrance, CA. and he also played for the Junior Kings.
California has built a larger pool of players and they’re starting to work their way into the NHL.
In 1981 there were two NHL players who were born in California. That number grew to four in 1996 and up to 14 this past season.
Can the same growth happen here?
“Most people think it will grow like crazy,” Kirton says. “It’s just been hovering there, without a winter sport here, we’re more entrenched in the area than people think. I think that Seattle at some point will be a hockey power house.”
It’s not just boy’s hockey that can grow, but hockey for girls as well.
With the high skill and increased visibility of women’s hockey on a national level, more and more girls are interested in the sport. The Washington Wild have gone from about 40 girls in 2002, when they began play, to over 200 this year.
Historically, girls who wanted to play hockey were stuck on to boy’s teams but that has started to change. The Wild have grown which ultimately helps girls develop their game and maybe even go on to play hockey in college.
“If you want to actually go on and be seen, you need to play with girls,” Wild board member Jenn Wood says. “Colleges don’t want to see girls playing on boy’s teams. For girls, there is no junior hockey so colleges recruit between freshmen and sophomore years, so if you want to go that path you need to be playing with girls by 13 or 14. Colleges don’t scout girls at boy’s tournaments.”
Wood, who coaches both with the Wild and Sno-King, says that some local girls have left the area to play more competitive hockey but hopefully that will start to change and the Wild have had girls move on to play in college.
Hockey is available in Puget Sound and the various associations have quality coaches that include former NHL and junior players. The knowledge is there for kids to develop their game. Everything would suggest that the sport is set up for an explosion when the NHL arrives here.
The biggest road block could be the lack of ice sheets to play on.
Currently, the Puget Sound region only has seven facilities with sheets of ice to play hockey on. Those seven buildings have to find room for youth hockey, adult recreational hockey, figure skating, and public skating. There’s a lot of competition for ice time.
“We don’t have any more room for youth hockey,” Kirton says. “Figure skating is a good program that takes up the ice during the day, adult hockey is sold out. We’re basically at maximum capacity. The rapid growth would be interesting if it were to happen. One would think that rinks would pop up, one would hope.”
Wood says that the Wild are experiencing the same crunch for ice.
“Ice has been a concern for all the programs,” she says. “Hopefully the NHL will come in and provide. If you put ice sheets up, I will fill them. If we could get eight more ice sheets, that would meet the demand.”
It goes without saying that the Seattle NHL club will build a practice facility somewhere in the Seattle area. Most NHL teams build practice facilities that have more than one sheet of ice. In San Jose, the Sharks practice at Sharks Ice with four rinks. Those rinks are open to youth hockey, public skating, and adult hockey. It even has a sports bar where parents can get food and drink while they watch their kids play.
The NHL Seattle group has reached out to local youth hockey associations but there have yet to be details as to how many rinks they plan on building and what sort of partnerships they will forge with the existing associations.
“Everyone is interested in what they’re going to do,” Kirton says. “Nobody seems to know exactly. I think the big thing is they need a practice facility. That’s what everybody is waiting for.”
More ice is vital to growing the sport in Seattle. Not only does it allow you to add players to your association, it allows for more time that players can spend on it, developing.
“To get to that next level you’ve got to be on the ice,” Kirton adds. “The ones that really have a chance are the ones that come to stick and pucks. They’re the ones that get up early and skate, they get their buddies and play open ice. They do public skating.”
As the sport grows and more players end up playing locally, players can stay home during their Bantam years and still get drafted by the WHL or recruited to play NCAA hockey. It will be easier for families like the Sanders, who would no longer need to make the long trek to Canada every weekend for tournaments. Those tournaments can happen locally and attract the proper attention from scouts.
Whether the Seattle area starts to produce pro prospects or not, the local associations want to grow the sport and create hockey players who will love to play the sport for the rest of their lives. If you go to the Sno-King web page one of the first things you’ll notice is a banner that reads ‘Building players for life’.
That’s ultimately the goal and they, and all the local associations, offer various beginner programs and clinics that will help kids learn the skill. A skill that will stick with them for life.
Hockey can be for everybody, whether you have pro aspirations or not, and for both boys and girls.
“I want to create girl hockey players for life,” Wood says. “If they want to move up, that’s great and we’ll train them. But if they just want to play recreational hockey, now there’s a place for them to do that from day one.”
For more information on local youth hockey associations, please visit the following links: