The greatest game on ice might become the greatest game on snow when the Spokane Chiefs stage their first outdoor hockey game on Saturday at Avista Stadium.
“Everyone is looking forward to it,” Chiefs center Tyler Johnson says. “I expect it to be a blast.”
When he was a kid, Johnson — a lifelong resident of suburban Spokane — skated outdoors on Liberty Lake and on the pond at Manito Park. Kevin King, who plays left wing for the Kootenay Ice, the Chiefs’ opponent on Saturday, says that while growing up in Calgary, he occasionally grabbed his skates, a stick and a puck and headed to a nearby frozen lake.
But while hockey legend is replete with stories of hearty Canadian youths playing outdoors in snow and temperatures that would send polar bears scurrying to the nearest fireplace, most young players today — Americans and Canadians alike — grew up playing indoors most or all of the time.
“I think the fans are going to be just as excited as the players,” King says. “It should be an energetic atmosphere.”
“Obviously, you don’t want it to be too cold or too hot, or rain,” says Johnson. “At the same time, both teams are going to have to work with the same conditions, so it doesn’t really matter.”
At the historic game, a regulation-size ice surface (200 feet by 85 feet) will stretch across what’s normally the Spokane Indians infield, from about first to third base. Except for some portable stands set aside for sponsors in the outfield, the seats will be the same ones used at Indians games.
Tim Speltz, general manager of the Chiefs, says they got the idea from the outdoor games that the National Hockey League has held annually since 2003. Fresh-air games have drawn well. Last month, a match between Michigan and Michigan State broke an all-time hockey attendance record, with 113,411 fans packing the football stadium in Ann Arbor.
The Chiefs expect to sell all of the estimated 7,000 tickets at higher-than-usual prices, ranging from $25 - $100. But Speltz says he’s not certain they’ll turn a profit outdoors. The team occasionally draws more than 10,000 in the Spokane Arena.
Speltz says team owner Bobby Brett was determined to make the game a reality, though.
“Financially, we understand why they haven’t been done before,” Speltz says. “I mean, it’s not a real responsible financial move. At the same time, we think it’s going to be great for the community of Spokane. I think it’s going to be great for our organization and our footprint in the community. It’s just something that’s way different, and it’s going to be a special, special event.”
Tyler Johnson, among the WHL’s top players, is one of the few Inland Northwest natives ever to play in the league. As a local product who grew up watching the Chiefs, the outdoor game has special meaning.
“Our fans are unbelievable,” he says. “They support us through thick and thin. It’s kind of a cool thing for them to see the first time the WHL is going to do this … We’re going to set history.”
Well, sorta. While Saturday’s contest will indeed be the first outdoor game in North America for major junior hockey (the highest level of amateur hockey for players 20 and under), it won’t actually be Spokane’s first-ever outdoor hockey game.
In 1916-17, the Spokane Canaries (the city’s first and last pro franchise) played all season in a roof-less arena on Elm Street, near present-day Cannon Park, in west-central Spokane. The team — led by owner, coach, star defenseman and future Hall-of-Famer Lester Patrick — folded after one season due to lackluster attendance. That year, the Canaries’ rival in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, the Seattle Metropolitans, became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup.
Nearly a century later, hockey in Spokane is ready to go topless once more.
Spokane Chiefs vs. Kootenay Ice • Sat, Jan. 15, at 1 pm • $25-$100 • Avista Stadium • Broadway Ave. and Havana St. • http://www.spokanechiefs.com • 328-0450 or (800) 325-SEAT