NHL to SEATTLE

Considering going to your first Thunderbirds game? Do it. Do it now.

Despite having lived in Seattle for close to three years now, it’s safe to say that I’m still very much in the learning stages of truly understanding the complex hockey culture of the Pacific Northwest. It simply isn’t “in your face” like it is in markets where the NHL already has a foothold and a successful franchise, yet you can easily sense that a strong culture exists. The thing is, though, it’s almost more like a sub-culture at this point, because in the current environment, in order for hockey to be something that fans can really sink their teeth into, they have to venture out of the downtown area a bit to find it.

At this time—and this will certainly change with the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise in (hopefully) 2020—hockey simply isn’t ever-present in Seattle like it is in my home state of Minnesota or in Canadian hockey hotbeds like Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary. Instead, for existing fans in the area and for people who have had their interest in the sport piqued by the NHL’s impending arrival, places like Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, The Angry Beaver in Greenwood, or Sno-King Ice in Renton are a few of the currently limited options for scratching the hockey itch.

But for those who really wish to quickly augment their understanding of the hockey culture (or sub-culture) in the Puget Sound Area, there may be no better place to start taking it all in than the accesso ShoWare Center, home of the Seattle Thunderbirds. This was the latest stop on my own personal journey through Seattle hockey culture, and let me tell you, it did not disappoint.

Hockey at a High Level

The primary reason to go see the T-Birds play is the hockey itself. These kids

Dillon Hamaliuk
(Photo Credit Brian Leisse. Courtesy of the Seattle Thunderbirds)

are legitimately really good, and although it’s slower and less crisp than you would see from the pros, make no mistake, there is some elite skill in the WHL. The Thunderbirds themselves have one player that has already been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in Jarret Tyszka (though he has been injured), and a couple more climbing draft boards in Dillon Hamaliuk and Jake Lee, both expected to get selected in the second or third round next summer. 

Plus, just about every visiting team brings future NHL talent, as we saw Tuesday when Ty Smith—a first-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in this past season’s draft—visited with his Spokane Chiefs. Smith was electric, playing what seemed like half the game and posting a goal and two assists to bring his season total to 28 points… in 17 games… as a defenseman… that’s really good. 

What makes this level of hockey really fun for the seasoned hockey fan, though, is that there are subtle things happening throughout that remind the onlooker that these kids—although supremely skilled—are still raw, still young, and still trying to prepare themselves for a pro-style game.

For example, there was a play Tuesday where Ethan McIndoe of Spokane absolutely trucked over a Seattle player in the neutral zone with a high hit. By “the code” of pro (or pro-style) hockey, McIndoe needed to answer the proverbial bell, so Seattle’s Samuel Huo skated along with him and whacked him a few times to indicate that he was challenging McIndoe. In the process, Huo accidentally caught McIndoe in the face to land himself in the box for two minutes.

My first thought as a hockey fan was, “Oh, that was a bad penalty.” But my second thought was… “Oh wait, he was born in 2001. He’s 17. And he’s just learning how to stick up for his teammates in the way that a professional tough guy would. That’s actually pretty cool that he did that. I wish he hadn’t cost his team a power play, but I bet he learned something from that.” 

It’s true! I totally thought all those things! 

Such reminders of the youth of the players on the ice make the level of play all the more inspiring. These kids are so young, yet so talented, and as somebody who has watched hockey my entire life, I can’t help having my mind boggled by the fact that a guy like Smith—who stands out in this league—will likely jump from playing against 16-20-year-olds this season to squaring off with NHL veterans next season. It’s fascinating. 

A Unique Gameday Experience

The arena is perfect for the junior level and represents an ideal opportunity to get to know the game of hockey if you aren’t already an obsessed fan like yours truly. Of the 6,150 seats inside the arena, zero of them are bad. With beer flowing and constant gimmicks being employed to keep fans entertained through practically every stoppage, the building gets pretty rowdy, even on a Tuesday night. 

There’s booing, chanting, heckling, fancy lighting displays, dance contests, Chuck-A-Puck, tricycle races, and top-notch people watching… 

Trust me, you will remain entertained.

Even a City Dweller Can Get There!

EDITOR’S NOTE: One update here… I should disclose that although I did take the train to the game, I was able to catch a ride back from the game, and did not take the train back. I’ve since learned from our readers that the train does not operate on weekends, and apparently there isn’t a late-night train to get you back. So, you may be stuck with Uber/Lyft coming back if you go during the week. 

I’m a city dweller. After spending six years in New York, I can’t bring myself to even consider moving away from an urban setting, one that allows me to be free of owning/caring for a car. Unfortunately this preference for walkability, rideshares, and public transportation doesn’t do much for my hockey culture exploration in Seattle, which explains why it took me this long to finally get down to Kent for a game (trust me, I’m not proud of the fact that it took this long). 

The thing is, though, easy access to T-Birds games—via the Sounder train from King Street Station—has been right under my nose the whole time! I was shocked at how simple it was to get from Downtown Seattle to the ShoWare Center without paying the expensive fare of an Uber or Lyft. In just 20 minutes, the 5:45 train dumped me out at Kent Station, which also just so happens to feature a myriad of perfect spots to stop before the game for a cold adult beverage or a quick bite. By the way, the Sounder train—if you aren’t aware—is $4. That’s it. $4.

Oh, and I guess it’s worth mentioning that if you do have a car and prefer to drive, parking at T-Birds games is free. 

There’s Just No Excuse

So, there you have it. A Seattle Thunderbirds game is a fantastic experience for every hockey fan, from the most veteran to the most novice. There’s skill, feistiness, and a rowdy atmosphere, all at an affordable price. 

Get to a game. Learn Seattle’s hockey culture. You won’t be disappointed.