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Seattle NHL expansion approval brings cheers, tears

Fans overcome with emotion after city is named home of League's 32nd team

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SEATTLE -- The bar was packed on a Tuesday morning, and suddenly, it went silent.

The fans had come to Henry's Tavern to watch NHL Network coverage of the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Sea Island, Georgia. Some had arrived as early as 6:15 a.m. PT, before sunrise, even though the doors weren't opening until 7:30 and the press conference wasn't until 9.

Now NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was on the TV screens. All eyes and ears were on him. Many held up their phones to record video of the words everyone was waiting to hear.

"I'm delighted to announce," Commissioner Bettman said, "that this morning the Board of Governors unanimously approved a plan of expansion that will bring a National Hockey League team to Seattle …"

The fans burst into cheers before Commissioner Bettman finished the sentence.

"My knees started to buckle," said John Barr, who has run NHLtoSeattle.com since 2013 and worked countless hours leading a grassroots effort to bring a team here. "Eyes got a little teary-eyed looking at it.

"I mean, it was amazing to see him actually say that, those words. We thought it was a foregone conclusion, but at the same time, the moment was just unreal."

Video: Seattle watches as they receive their new NHL team

The fans quietly listened for details and roared at the mentions of certain things: a rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks, Seattle as the first U.S. city to win the Stanley Cup, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, lead owner David Bonderman and NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke.

When Commissioner Bettman explained that Seattle would have the same rules in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft as the Vegas Golden Knights had in 2017, someone yelled, "We want T.J. Oshie!"

Oshie was born in Everett, Washington, and played 10 years in the Seattle Junior Hockey Association before moving to Warroad, Minnesota. With the Washington Capitals last season, he became the second player born in the state of Washington to win the Cup after Wayne Hicks of Aberdeen won it with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1961.

Maybe now more will follow.

NHL Seattle passed out hats and buttons that said, "RETURN TO HOCKEY," a nod to the city's rich hockey history.

Fans wore jerseys of the Seattle Metropolitans, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association team that defeated the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey Association in 1917, months before the NHL was born. Fans wore jerseys of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League and jerseys of NHL teams.

"I think this shows the depth of support that this team is going to have," Durkan said.

Some fans were Seattle natives. Some were transplants.

Paul Brownlow, 58, is from Seattle and fell in love with hockey here. He used to go to bed with a transistor radio, listening to broadcasts of the Seattle Totems of the old professional Western Hockey League, and saw the Totems defeat the Soviet Union in 1974 under the same iconic roof where the NHL Seattle team will play at Seattle Center Arena.

For about 20 years, he had Thunderbirds season tickets. On and off the past few years, he has had Canucks partial season tickets. Now he will have NHL Seattle season tickets. His wife, Deirdre, snagged priority No. 19 even though 10,000 deposits were made in 12 minutes March 1.

"I'm just totally excited," Brownlow said, wearing an old game-used Thunderbirds jersey and a "RETURN TO HOCKEY" hat. "I can't believe it's happening. I've wanted this for 40 years. I always dreamed of it."

Paul Buxton, 34, moved to Seattle.

"I'm from San Jose originally," he said. "Other people are from other hockey-loving areas. They bring their own traditions. But this is a team that we can all sort of get behind together as a city."

Wait. Read that again. Think about it. He referred to San Jose as a hockey-loving area so casually, as if it were a given. It is now. But was it before the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991?

This is the power of expansion done right. Buxton's parents took him to a game when he was in fourth grade. He was hooked when he saw the shark head descend from the rafters and the players skate out of it, and he grew to love the speed and skill of the game.

"It didn't matter that we didn't know anything about the sport, that there was no tradition, necessarily, in San Jose," he said. "That grew organically, and that was directly the result of the NHL taking a chance on us."

Now here he was in a Metropolitans hat and jersey on the day the NHL took a chance on Seattle. He once worked with Barr at Microsoft. Like Barr, he had gone to city council meetings to advocate for an NHL team. He had gone to the Vegas inaugural home opener last season wearing a Metropolitans jersey and briefly chatted with Commissioner Bettman on the red carpet about the Seattle arena situation.

"Now it's our day to celebrate," he said.

As the fans partied inside the bar, Barr stood outside and tried to control his emotions.

"I mean, I believed in the community all along," he said. "But, um …"

He teared up, shrugged and laughed.

"It's just a culminating event," he said. "So, um, before I start crying, I'm just going to end it there."

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