What the US Division could have been

Every so often, rumors of an expansion team or the moving of an established franchise to a US town comes up. With the unbalanced divisions, it seems to have come up more frequently in the last few years or so. However, if you go back through the history of the WHL, you’ll see discussions of American expansions throughout the decades.

First, a bit of history about the US cities that currently exist in the WHL.

  • Portland, Oregon. Portland was the first US city to have a team in what is now the Western Hockey League. At the time of the Winter Hawks move from Edmonton in 1976, the league was known as the WCHL, or Western Canadian Hockey League. Portland called the Veterans Memorial Coliseum home and still do to this day. That earns them the distinction of playing the longest amount of time in the same arena of any current WHL Western Conference team. The team has kept the same name since creation but, in 2009, changed from the original Winter Hawks to the current Winterhawks.
  • Seattle, Washington. Seattle joined the season after Portland in 1977. The Breakers, as the new Seattle team was known, had been in Kamloops, B.C. the previous 4 seasons. The Breakers name would be used until the team got new ownership before the 85-86 season and became the Thunderbirds. While keeping the Seattle name, they currently play in Kent, Washington. (Also joining the WCHL in 1978 were the Billings Bighorns, which necessitated the change of the league name to WHL.)
  • Spokane, Washington. The current Spokane franchise has been in the WHL since 1985 when, after 3 seasons, the Kelowna Wings moved to become the Spokane Chiefs. The Chiefs were not the first WHL team in Spokane, however. The Spokane Flyers existed for just 98 games from 1980-81 after being in Great Falls, Montana, the previous season.
  • Kennewick, Washington. The Tri-City Americans play in Kennewick but represent the Tri-Cities area of Washington which is comprised of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland. They joined the WHL in 1988, a result of the 2nd incarnation of the New Westminster (B.C.) Bruins moving. The Americans have gone through the most logo changes of all the current US Division teams, having had at least 4 primary logos since their founding. In 2005, the WHL voted against the proposed move of the Americans to Chilliwack, B.C.
  • Everett, Washington. The Everett Silvertips are the most recent addition to the US Division and the only current US Division team that was an expansion franchise and not the result of a team moving. They own the longest playoff streak of all the current US Division teams, having made the playoffs in each of their 11 years of existence so far.

US cities that formerly had WHL teams:

  • Billings, Montana 77-82 Moved to Nanaimo, B.C. (The lineage of the Tri-City Americans can be traced back to the Billings Bighorns.)
  • Great Falls, Montana 1979 Folded after 28 games.
  • Tacoma, Washington 91-95 (During their time in Tacoma, held multiple WHL attendance records) Moved to Kelowna, B.C.

Most recently, the town of Wenatchee, Washington, has been mentioned as a place for WHL expansion. With a relatively new, albeit smaller, building and proximity to the other US Division teams, it could fit right in. Other places mentioned include Couer d’Alene, Idaho, and Olympia, Washington.

Today, though, we are going to focus on 5 cities identified specifically in three separate Seattle Times articles in the early 90’s by then WHL President Ed Chynoweth and other team executives. The early 90’s were the zenith of hockey in the Pacific Northwest, at least when talking about the WHL-era. Three teams (Portland, Seattle, Tacoma) were playing to crowds of 10,000+, usually against one another. If there was going to be major expansion beyond Kennewick, Portland, Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma, there was no better time for it than then.

One of the cities mentioned most often was Eugene, Oregon. As early as 1990, the Seattle Times made mention of Eugene being the next US city to get a WHL team. In an article from April 13, 1990, the Times had this bit of information:

Brian Shaw, general manager of the Portland Winter Hawks, said the WHL is likely to put an expansion team into Eugene for the 1991-92 season. Some amateur games featuring players in their 30s and 40s have drawn recent crowds of 2,000 at a remodeled building on the fairgrounds in Eugene. More remodeling will be necessary before the arena is a proper WHL facility, said Shaw.

Again in February of 1992, where Ed Chynoweth includes Eugene in a list of cities the WHL “would love to be in”, and in November of 1992 when the Seattle Times mentioned that the league was exploring expanding there, Eugene was usually one of the first places named when talking US expansion.

There are certainly many pros and cons, even now, to the idea of putting a team in Oregon’s Emerald City. Among the pros would be a natural rivalry with Portland. While Seattle and Portland will always be the US rivalry, at least on this side of the Cascades, a team in Eugene would provide a natural geographical rival for Portland, much like Everett is to Seattle. Along the same lines, having another team in Cascadia reinforces the region as a whole, with teams stretching the entire length, from Vancouver to Eugene. More recently, with the idea of a NCAA hockey conference becoming a viable opportunity in the Pac-12 region, getting into Eugene ahead of that would be a boon for the WHL.

Eugene does have drawbacks, though. First and foremost is a suitable place to play. There’s only one rink in Eugene and it’s the only one around for a fair distance. It would need to be tremendously updated to host a WHL team or a brand new arena would need to be built in town. Adding to that, if the new WHL team was to take over the one arena, it would displace all the recreational hockey leagues that play there and that is not the best way to build a fanbase in a new city. Geographically, while close to Portland, it would be the southernmost WHL team and would add on another 2 hours or so to current drive times to Portland. One last con is that Eugene is fiercely Oregon Ducks first or at least it was when I lived there. If there were both a Eugene WHL team and a Division 1 Oregon Ducks hockey team, I think the Ducks team would win out for the students and community support. That’s at least the impression that I get now.

3 other cities came up when the Seattle Times talked to Ed Chynoweth about expansion in February of 1992: Boise, Idaho; Yakima, Washington; and Bellingham, Washington. Of those 3, Boise is the one that has come up again recently, mostly due to the rumors of relocating the Kootenay Ice to the Idaho capital.

Boise has had a history of minor league hockey, most notably with the team that currently calls Boise home, the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads. They play at CenturyLink Arena which was built in 1997 and holds about 5000 people for hockey. With suites and club seats already in the arena, it is pretty much ready to go for a WHL team. There is a very big drawback to putting a team in Boise, however, and that is the location. Boise would be almost 5 hours away from the nearest division rival, the Americans in Kennewick. It would be about a 7 hour trip to Portland or Spokane and 8+ to Kent. That’s almost bordering on Prince George-like travel times to play a division opponent.

Yakima was an appealing choice in the 90’s because of the construction of the Yakima SunDome in 1990 which was also home to the Sun Kings of the Continental Basketball Association. It also helped that Kennewick is 90 minutes away and Yakima is just a little over 3 hours to the rest of the US Division. However, the SunDome was built without an ice plant and, at least according to some, any team that wanted to move there would have to pay for the ice making equipment themselves. A tough sell, especially for a team that might be relocating due to financial trouble.

Bellingham is, to me, the most interesting of the 3. Also in the I-5 corridor with Seattle and Portland, it would have provided a location for teams to stop and play on the way either to or from the United States. Remember that back in 1992 the Vancouver Giants didn’t exist yet so there was a large gap between Seattle and Kamloops.  Bellingham, while not exactly halfway, would have at least broken up the geographical black hole. Much like Eugene, while it is an appealing town, there is no suitable arena. And in Bellingham, it would more than likely cost more to bring the SportsPlex up to standards than it would to build a brand new rink. With Vancouver now in the league, Bellingham might not be thought of as a necessity any more but, with Western Washington University in town and the nearby towns and counties growing, could still possibly sustain a team.

There was one more city mentioned in the November 1992 Seattle Times article but it sounds so ridiculous and far-fetched, it’s barely worth discussing: Sacramento, California. Never mind the fact that there is no suitable place to play (unless the WHL wanted another Seattle situation with a WHL team playing in an NBA arena), the WHL is a bus league. Let’s assume for argument sake that Sacramento and Eugene were both granted franchises. Sacramento to Eugene is a little over 7 hours. That would be to the nearest team. To get to Seattle or Spokane would take 12-14 hours. For a division game! And I think you would absolutely have to stop inter-conference play. No one should be subjected to the 28 hour bus ride that would have been Sacramento to Brandon.

We’ve gone a bit back and forth about discussing these teams in a vacuum. It’s hard to know how the dominoes would have fallen if any/all of these teams had come to fruition. If the WHL did expand to Eugene in 1992, does Everett still get a team in 2003? Would Prince George still get the Victoria Cougars in 1994 or would they have become the WHL’s version of the Bellingham Ice Hawks? And would another team in the I-5 corridor, no matter where it was, have justified Tacoma building a new rink and keeping the Rockets from Kelowna in 1995?

I’m sure in the next 25 years, there will be the same discussions about who should move where and whether the United States should have more teams in the Canadian Hockey League. But every once in a while, it’s interesting to look back and think about what could have been.