WHL Expansion: Location, Location, Location

By Jeff Bromley
When the WHL announced a couple of weeks ago that they had for all intents and purposes found the location of the much coveted twentieth team for the league in Everett, Washington to begin play in 2003-04, I thought that through all the specifics attached to the announcement, it wasn’t a bad choice. When Ron Robinson was brought in as commissioner over fourteen months ago it was quite clear that one of his mandates was to bring the WHL to twenty member franchises in specific regions. The target region was the Pacific Northwest to compliment the four existing franchises in a newly named U.S. Division and Everett, its relative location to Seattle, Portland, Kennewick (Tri-Cities), Spokane and the most recent expansion club, the Vancouver Giants fit that mold quite nicely. It’s population (96,000), it’s instant rivalry potential with Seattle and the fact that Snohomish county was going to build a 8000 seat arena complex didn’t hurt it’s chances either. In what had to be a first and undoubtedly a sign of the times, two separate leagues vied for the privilege of locating there. The WHL had to actually present its case as a better tenant to the Everett city council as competition to place a franchise in that city was coming from the West Coast Hockey League. A league comparable to single ‘A’ level of professional hockey if you were using baseball’s designation in relation to it’s quality of play.

As mentioned, the WHL won the day, had it’s twentieth franchise and couldn’t be happier with where it would be situated. One small problem though, the location proved to be too close to Seattle. Due to the fact that Everett falls into the fifty mile radius of protected territory around Seattle, Bill Yuill, the Thunderbird’s owner has either the right to vote down the franchise, which is highly unlikely, or the first right of refusal of ownership of the expansion team. In a nutshell, it is more than likely Yuill will pay the franchise fee of the Everett club and then sell his Seattle franchise not necessarily in that order however.

O.K., so the decision on Everett seemingly has so many positive aspects going for it that it is equally tough to find holes in the plan. Which in turn doesn’t make for a very good column now does it? Truth is, the league’s done their homework on this one. The new building, the fact that the league has expanded by three club’s in the last seven years and it the often mentioned dwindling talent pool seems to be deeper than most imagined and the simple economic fact that in Everett, as in most other centers, with the right facility, the proper marketing and a decent product on the ice, the people will come. Even in non-traditional hockey centers.

If I have any reservations it is that Thunderbirds owner Bill Yuill will in all likelihood exercise his option to purchase the expansion franchise and sell the T-Birds. But by doing so isn’t the league once again exposing itself to possibility of another ‘Tri-Cities’ fiasco? By letting an anchor franchise that has been in Seattle in one form or another for over 24 years change over into the hands of a possible fly-by-night owner is risking the very franchise itself. Granted the possibility is remote now that the league has experienced such a happenstance in the short-lived Wayne Overland-Tri-City ownership situation and is unlikely to be lured down the garden path again but the possibility exists nonetheless. If the Thunderbirds franchise was such a screaming success then why would the specter of Yuill jumping at the chance to own it’s new expansion rival prove so inviting? Even so, why would a prospective buyer wade into a situation whereby the previous owner was quick to jump ship when the opportunity presented itself. And wouldn’t the prospective owner be inclined to think about possible relocation? Why not have prospective owners compensate the T-Birds for encroachment and keep the status quo?

Although this expansion club is still in the formative stages and everything is on paper there are many questions. The trend of current owners jumping to expansion clubs in lieu of their own teams is disturbing and speaks volumes, whether exaggerated or not, about the current situations of some of the member clubs.

Expansion, for the most part benefits all clubs and is positive for the league as a whole but it mustn’t be made is spite of the existing clubs. The last go-around of expansion was a bit of a fiasco, let’s make sure Everett is done right.