Hockey Night in Kent

Seattle Thunderbirds Games Are Ridiculously Fun

The Kraken aren't the only playoff hockey team in Seattle. They may not be the most entertaining either.

By Eric Nusbaum April 17, 2023

At one point during Saturday’s Western Hockey League playoff game between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Prince George Cougars, my son turned to me and asked if the crowd around us was chanting “USA.”

It was loud and manic in the arena after the Thunderbirds killed a 5-3 power play for a full two minutes, and why would an uninitiated seven-year-old expect a bunch of mostly adults to be screaming what they really were screaming—“Cougars suck”?

As the Kraken prepare to make their NHL postseason debut in Colorado this week, marking a high point for the team in only its second season of existence, Seattle’s longest-running hockey franchise is gliding through its own postseason. The Thunderbirds, who play at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent, have been in Seattle for nearly five decades. This year’s team might be the best in franchise history. The Thunderbirds finished first in their conference, swept the Kelowna Rockets 4-0 in the opening round of the playoffs, and lead Prince George 2-0 in the second after Saturday night's victory.

Where Kraken players are already at the highest level of the sport, Thunderbirds players are striving to get there. As part of what’s called major juniors, they range in age from 16 to 21, are paid relatively lightly, and live with host families. Some have already been drafted by NHL teams but are still developing. Some others are still too young to be eligible for the draft.

Forward Brad Lambert, a first-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, led the Thunderbirds with a goal and three assists on Saturday. 

“This atmosphere is mostly exciting because of the drive that the kids have,” says Colby Tison, a T-Birds season ticket holder who says he has only missed three games in the past seven years. “They are trying to make it to the NHL, so they play at 110 percent every single night. So every single night you get every kid’s best effort.”

You also get the intimacy that comes with a small arena and a young team; some players rely on their host families for a ride home. At a Kraken game, when a player has a good game, you probably won’t be able to high-five him afterward and tell him what an awesome job he did. But on Saturday, Thunderbirds fans did exactly that for Mekai Sanders, who is also the team’s only local player, from Gig Harbor.

“I came to Thunderbirds games when I was younger,” Sanders says. “I played for Junior Thunderbirds. Every kid there wants to play for the T-Birds. I’m just blessed I got to make it happen.”

Sanders says he’s seen a lot more interest in hockey since the Kraken came to town, even in Gig Harbor, which like most communities doesn’t have an ice rink. And he’s excited for the sport to keep growing locally. There is no official relationship between the Kraken and the Thunderbirds, or the Everett Silvertips, who also play in the WHL—but the Kraken have been supportive of the hockey teams that predated them in the region, even opening their home to them. The Thunderbirds have played “Battle of the Sound” games at Climate Pledge Arena each of the past two seasons. 

The intimacy of the stadium experience in Kent extends to the relationship between the team and its fans. There has been a reckoning in hockey this season over Pride Night celebrations, which generally involve, among other things, wearing specially designed warm-up jerseys before games. These had generally gone unnoticed in years past. But this season, a subset of individual players across the NHL have refused to wear Pride Night uniforms, leading some franchises to nix their usage altogether and incur ensuing criticism from fans.

The Thunderbirds never scheduled an official Pride Night this season. But their roster happens to include Luke Prokop, who is the only openly gay player in the WHL. So a group of fans put a Pride Night together themselves. They printed T-shirts, made signs, and, through an equipment manager, passed rainbow tape along to the players,  who emerged for pregame warmups with their sticks wrapped with it. Arena staff followed suit, putting rainbow logos up on the Jumbotron and making a pregame announcement.

“It was really cool to see the fans though put something together and the team support as they felt like they could, and the players buy into it,” says Val Scrivner, a longtime Thunderbirds season ticket holder and host parent to players on the team who happens to have rainbow-dyed hair. “It speaks to the community of the fans and the players that even without the team as a business, we can make it happen.”

The difference between a Kraken game in Queen Anne and a Thunderbirds game in Kent is something like the difference between dinner at a restaurant where the menu comes on a QR code and an evening at the local bar. One isn’t necessarily better or worse. But they aren’t the same thing. To the Kraken’s credit, their Pride Night festivities went off without a hitch. But if they hadn’t, it’s hard to imagine that a DIY Pride Night like the one Thunderbirds fans put together could have been possible at that level.  

“The best part of game night is when something organic happens,” says Tom Helm, who has been the Thunderbirds public address announcer since 2002, back when the team played in what was then Key Arena.

Helm establishes the atmosphere at Thunderbirds games with his voice—particularly his dramatic readings of the starting lineup:

He is also the stadium DJ, reading the crowd’s mood, selecting music, and hitting the notes that fans want at just the right moment: the goal song, the Ric Flair “woo” sound effect, the lights-out Sweet Caroline sing-along after the second period. The Thunderbirds experience is ritualistic in part because the team has had the chance to establish a rhythm and build those rituals over time.

One of those, of course, is telling the other team they suck, which might seem immature and silly, especially when the other team is mostly teenagers. But it’s also fun, a tradition, that everybody—including the players, and now my son—understands.

“I love that the boys are coming out of the room and everybody’s chanting, everybody’s clapping," says Srivner. "It doesn’t really matter what we’re saying, just that there’s huge energy and noise right from the get-go.”

Scrivner, who is also a Kraken season ticket holder, is looking forward to seeing that kind of energy make its way into Climate Pledge Arena in seasons to come.

“That piece is something I love, and I feel is kind of missing from Kraken games,” she says. “You don’t get that same boost when they come on the ice. I think as a Kraken fan we’re still just glad there’s a team.”

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