Seattle’s new NHL team may seem like a natural foe for the Vancouver Canucks, but some in the hockey world say building a rivalry between the regional neighbours will take time.
Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini welcomed Tuesday’s news that the NHL board of governors unanimously approved a yet-to-be-named franchise in Seattle, set to start play in the 2021-22 season.
“Great to welcome Seattle to the NHL!” he tweeted. “I’ve got a feeling this will become a classic rivalry.”
But while the Emerald City is located just over 200 kilometres south of Vancouver, Canucks head coach Travis Green said rivalries aren’t solely based on where teams are located.
“They come from hard playoff series, going through battles and being battle tested against each other,” he said.
Vancouver defenceman Troy Stecher — who’s from the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, B.C. — also believes creating a grudge between teams requires some history.
“I definitely think it could become something, but it’s going to take time,” he said, noting that a there’s already an intense competition in Major League Soccer between the Vancouver Whitecaps and their regional adversaries, the Seattle Sounders.
“You can’t just say it’s a rivalry. You’ve got to go through games, you’ve got to build that personality, you’ve got to have battles with guys on their teams. And I think that’s what creates it.”
Giving both Vancouver and Seattle fans an opportunity to drive to games in another market will be huge, Stecher said.
“I played at a college that had really good fans that would travel a ways,” said the University of North Dakota alum. “So maybe this is a good step for the Canucks.”
Creating a new rivalry could be a boon for the Canucks business side, said Peter Tingling, a professor with Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C.
“You want engaged fans and it will certainly be good from that perspective,” he said, noting that it’s been a long time since Vancouver’s Rogers Arena was regularly sold-out for hockey games.
Having a new team in the Pacific Division could also put pressure on the Canucks to perform both on and off the ice, Tingling added.
The NHL’s last expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, upped the ante for competition and entertainment, making the Stanley Cup final in their first year in the league, and quickly gaining a reputation for over-the-top in-game experiences and fan engagement.
“There’s nothing like footprints behind you to make you up your game,” Tingling said. “It’s not just winning in the arena, although that’s always a good thing. If you start to see some innovation in how they engage with fans, for example, that’s going to put pressure on Vancouver.”
The Canucks are currently in rebuild mode after finishing second last in the Pacific Division last year. The club had a hot start to the season, thanks in part to rookie sensation Elias Pettersson, but the team has since cooled, winning just one of their last 12 games.
A continued slump could be dangerous if another franchise enters the market and performs well, Tingling said.
“Fans can be fickle,” he said. ”They will only put up with a poor performance for so long. And if they can look a few hours south to a winning team, that’s going to create some resentment, I would expect.”
While a new rivalry with Seattle could capture attention short-term, it’s not the best way to create and retain fans, Tingling said.
“Quite simply, there’s nothing like winning to fill an arena,” he said. ”And if you’re not winning, then what else are you doing?”
While some say animosity between the Pacific Northwest teams could take time to boil over, politicians were already trading barbs Tuesday.
“I’m excited to see Seattle’s #ReturnToHockey today,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee tweeted. ”I look forward to seeing the goalie sunburned by the goal light as the new @NHLSeattle_ team beats the Vancouver @Canucks in 2021.”
“Won’t be as bad as the sunburn your goalie’s going to get from playing golf after the regular season’s over,” responded B.C. Premier John Horgan. ”Congratulations City of Seattle. Go @Canucks go!”
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press