The Seattle Thunderbirds will return to Western Hockey League play March 19 at the accesso ShoWare Center under a temporarily modified license agreement with the city of Kent.
City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick explained several of the changes to the City Council at its Tuesday, Feb. 23 Committee of the Whole virtual meeting. The agreement became necessary because no fans will be allowed at the 12 home games at the city-owned arena due to COVID-19. The league has received approval from the governor’s office to begin play.
“We have a 30-year agreement with the Thunderbirds,” said Fitzpatrick about the team using the arena in return for the city getting an admission tax on each ticket sold. “City income is based on fan attendance, ticket sales etc. Since there will be no ticket sales, we need to amend the agreement to allow them to play and at no cost to the city.”
The T-Birds will pay for all costs to operate the arena, including an estimated $4,000 to install ice. The ShoWare Center has been closed to events since last March. Other costs include utilities and staffing, such as $23 per hour for ice maintenance workers and $25 per hour for janitorial workers.
“We will take on the costs,” T-Birds vice president Colin Campbell said to the council. “We felt we had to do that to maintain our long-term business model.”
The modified agreement with the city will end in May when the season ends. Seattle will play 24 games, all against U.S. Division opponents Portland, Spokane, Tri-City and Everett.
Russ Farwell, T-Birds general manager, told the council it was important for Seattle and the rest of the league to give players a chance to play.
“The 24 games (with no playoffs) we felt is critical to allow development of players,” Farwell said as several players aim to perform well with the NHL Draft coming up July 23-24. “A number of players are ranked for the draft and this will be the first year for the Seattle (Kraken) to participate.”
The Kraken begin their first NHL season in the fall at the new Climate Pledge Arena at Seattle Center.
Campbell said the T-Birds and WHL need to return to play so they do not lose top players to European leagues and leagues that are operating in other parts of the U.S.
The WHL has set strict protocols, including players getting tested for COVID-19 three times per week. Players will start arriving this weekend after quarantining at home and must quarantine here with the families they are staying with before practice begins in early March. Teams will not stay overnight after road games.
“We want to keep our business viable and provide an opportunity for the players,” said Farwell, who added it looks like all 22 WHL teams will be able to survive and return to play in September to start the 2021-2022 season. “We will need to rebuild from a business standpoint. Our entire model is based on selling tickets.”
Seattle is trying to reach agreements to televise as many of the 24 games as possible this short season, Campbell said.
Portland to play at ShoWare
The T-Birds won’t be the only team playing at the ShoWare Center. The Portland Winterhawks plan to play their home games in Kent since the state of Oregon hasn’t approved play in the state due to COVID-19 restrictions that are stricter than in Washington.
It appeared a plan would be approved for teams to travel to Portland to play as the WHL worked with governors of both states, Campbell said. But then Oregon shut down the possibility of the Winterhawks playing in the state.
Schedules were released Feb. 24 with both teams playing home games at the ShoWare Center. Portland, however, has just two home games scheduled in Kent in March with future home sites in April and May to be determined in case the team can play in Oregon.
The Winterhawks will share in the costs to play at the ShoWare Center.
Vaccination site to continue
Even with hockey returning, the concourse at the ShoWare Center will continue to be a COVID-19 vaccination site for King County, said Tim Higgins, general manager for the arena.