As a hockey player growing up in Spokane, Luke Gallagher didn’t have an in-state professional team to root for.
Instead, he followed players.
“I started liking individual players and guys I had seen here in Spokane: Jared Spurgeon, Tyler Johnson, Jared Cowen, the list goes on,” the current Chiefs defenseman said, recounting former Spokane Chiefs players who went on to play in the National Hockey League. “I’ve never really had a team, but now that there’s gonna be a team in Seattle, I’ll wear their colors.”
What those colors will be is yet to be decided, but as of Tuesday, it is official: There is an NHL team for Washington kids to call their own. Starting in three years, the yet-to-be named Seattle expansion franchise will play in the NHL, and area hockey figures said they expect it will raise the sport’s profile across the state, including in Spokane.
In particular, they hope it leads to the construction of more rinks so that hockey’s appeal and participation expands in the Northwest.
“It’s going to be great for Washington state. Hopefully it can grow the game of hockey in the state, and it will be that upper level that can feed its way all the way down the junior ranks,” said Scott Carter, general manager of the Spokane Chiefs, who play in the Western Hockey League. “(It will) help grow the game, maybe get some more rinks built and get some smaller towns to think about building an arena and having hockey. You can’t grow the game here without more ice.”
Carter was part of the Anaheim Ducks organization when it started more than 20 years ago, and he said that is just what the Ducks did in Southern California in the hopes of drawing more young players to the sport. He said other expansion or transplanted franchises of the past three decades – Nashville and Dallas, to name two – did the same. He could also see the NHL making use of the Spokane Arena.
“For Spokane, maybe we’ll get an NHL exhibition game to come over this way,” Carter said. “We’ve got a facility to certainly handle it. That would be great for our fan base.”
Hockey has a long history in Eastern Washington. George Talotti, who owns the Red Lion BBQ and Pub, played for the Spokane Jets and Flyers of the Western International Hockey League from 1967 to 1978. He remembers ticket lines wrapping around the old Spokane Coliseum, or “Boone Street Barn” as it was known.
“People lined up all night long to get tickets. I remember one year if you weren’t lined up by 7 in the morning you didn’t get a ticket,” Talotti said. “In those days, we were to Spokane almost what Gonzaga basketball is now. … Hockey was maybe bigger then than it is now in that we didn’t have Gonzaga to compete with.”
With the nearest NHL team a seven-hour drive and a border crossing away in Vancouver, British Columbia, the NHL’s presence in Seattle will raise the sport’s profile across the state, Chiefs coach Dan Lambert said.
“Having a team here in the (northwest) United States is something that will really add to the game, and we should see development when it comes to young players wanting to play more,” Lambert said. “There’s gonna be more exposure for them and (reason) to be excited to play the game.”
In addition to the Chiefs, the region is home to a handful of professional or college hockey teams at various competitive levels. The Spokane Braves, who play at Eagles Ice Arena in North Spokane, are part of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
A few of the area universities, including Washington State, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington, play in the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II, a lower club level of college hockey. EWU has its own rink, one of the few campuses in the state to have one.
“It’s still kind of a niche sport in Spokane,” EWU coach Pat Hanlon said.
But, having a team in the state at the highest level of the sport should get more people interested in the game.
“It’s one thing to watch on television, it’s totally different if you get to see it live and you’re seeing the speed,” Carter said. “And if you actually get the chance to put on the skates and just go out and try it and see how difficult it is to skate, then you have an even greater appreciation for what happens. Hopefully, that’ll happen.”
Gallagher, who attended Mt. Spokane High School, dreamed about this day and is excited the NHL is finally that much closer.
“I’ve been waiting anxiously for it. You heard rumors like years ago it seems, but now that it’s all coming to light and it’s true, it’s really really cool and I’m excited,” Gallagher said. “It’ll be cool to have a Seattle hockey team.”
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