The NHL awarded an expansion franchise to Seattle, Washington on Tuesday, with the yet-to-be-named team set to join the league in the 2021-22 season.
Seattle will become the NHL's 32nd franchise and will play in the Pacific Division. The Arizona Coyotes will transfer to the Central Division, giving the league four balanced divisions with eight teams each. Seattle will build their team through an expansion draft with the same rules that applied to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017.
While the NHL is venturing to Seattle for the first time, the Emerald City has been home to the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds since 1977 (originally known as the Seattle Breakers until 1985).
The expansion announcement was welcomed news to Thomas Hickey and Mathew Barzal, who both played four seasons of junior hockey in Seattle with the Thunderbirds.
Video: Hickey, Barzal Support Seattle Expansion
"It's a great decision, I'm excited to get a chance to play there," Hickey said. "I had four good years in junior, there are great people, it's a great city. It's not just going to be a good franchise to play for, but a good city on the road to go stay and play in."
Hickey recorded 177 points (39G, 138A) in 262 games with the Thunderbirds from 2005-09, while Barzal recorded 278 points (63G, 215A) in 202 games. Hickey and Barzal both served as captains of the T-Birds, while Barzal led Seattle to the franchise's first WHL championship in 2017.
"It's great for the NHL. I think they're going to do well there," Barzal said. "It's a nice city, I really liked playing there in junior. I hope they do well with fans, similar to the Vegas situation. Having Vancouver close there will be a good rivalry. I think its pretty exciting for the league."
Both Barzal and Hickey said they felt there was an appetite for hockey in the city. Seattle reportedly acquired 10,000 deposits for season tickets in 12 minutes and Barzal said the Thunderbirds drew well while he donned navy blue and green.
"Our junior fans were crazy. They love coming to the games and they were nuts," Barzal said. "We sold out our rink pretty consistently, so I think fans will like it."
"It's a great sports city," Hickey said. "Passionate fans, everything from football, baseball, soccer, basketball. It's just a fanbase that gets behind their teams."
Barry Trotz was also supportive of the league's decision to award the Seattle franchise. Twenty years ago, Trotz helped usher the Nashville Predators into the league, picking everything from players to carpeting, so he has a soft spot for the expansion process. As a junior hockey player with the Regina Pats, Trotz played against the Seattle Breakers, remembering how their old arena used fence, instead of glass, on top of their boards.
"Congrats to Seattle. It'll be a great market," Trotz said. "The Pacific Northwest is a good hockey city. There's been a lot of junior hockey, hockey back to the 20s and 30s and some good pro leagues up there. I think it'll be a fabulous market and they are going to do it right. They have great ownership and some good examples, obviously the Nashville's and Vegas' come to mind in the last 15 and 20 years."
The expansion team is slated to play at KeyArena, which is where Hickey, but not Barzal, played when he was a Thunderbird. The arena, which was home to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, wasn't originally fitted for hockey causing sightline issues, but is expected to undergo an $800M renovation to become NHL ready.
Hickey said once the renovation is complete, Seattle will wind up being an attractive destination for players, due to its climate and quality of life.
"It's the Pacific Northwest. It doesn't get too cold, lots of rain, but it's a beautiful area," Hickey said. "There's lots of money and corporate support for the hockey team there. Just a really high quality of life and a great downtown."
"It's a great junior hockey city and it's going to be a great NHL city," Hickey said.