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Will the Seattle Kraken get all ‘neighbourly’ with the Canucks?

The NHL era will begin in Seattle later this year when the Kraken take the ice. Until then, it’s worth taking a look into the history of Seattle’s nearest potential rival – the Vancouver Canucks – with the help of some experts and non-experts from north of the border.

It can sometimes be easy to forget that Seattle is a hockey town, and has been for more than one hundred years. After all, the Seattle Metropolitans beat the Montreal Canadiens to become the first American team to capture the Stanley Cup in 1917. They almost won it all again in 1919, were it not for the Spanish Flu.

And in the century or more since then, professional teams have played here almost without interruption, including the Seattle Totems of the old Western Hockey League, and the Breakers and Thunderbirds of more recent years.

The COVID-19 pandemic altered all professional sports leagues last year, including the National Hockey League, whose 2019-2020 season was played in a “bubble” and wrapped up with an unprecedented (and much delayed) Stanley Cup Final in September.

Canucks players reported to training camp this week, and a delayed and truncated 2020-2021 season will get underway in February. Then, sometime this autumn, the 2021-2022 season, perhaps all back to normal again, will begin in big hockey cities around the United States and Canada.

While dates and the actual schedule for the 2021-2022 season have not yet been announced by the NHL, a Seattle Kraken spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that, barring unforeseen events, the expansion team will launch their inaugural season later this year at Climate Pledge Arena (which many people will probably still just call the Coliseum, or, grudgingly, KeyArena).

Meanwhile, just two hours north of Seattle, the Vancouver Canucks have been playing NHL hockey since 1970, and the Canucks’ history stretches back to the 1940s. In fact, the Seattle Totems beat the Canucks to win the Western Hockey League Championship in 1967.

Jim Robson remembers that 1967 game very well. He’s 85 years old, and was the “Voice of the Canucks” on radio and TV from their inaugural NHL season in 1970 until 1999. And he still attends every game. Robson began his radio career as a 17-year-old, calling basketball games in Port Alberni, British Columbia, in the early 1950s.

Robson says that when the NHL expanded from its original six teams to 12 teams for the 1967-1968 season, the Vancouver Canucks organization was not granted a franchise. This made Vancouver hockey fans very unhappy.

Those fans were so unhappy, that when NHL games were broadcast on national TV in Canada that autumn, those Vancouverites were inspired to launch a boycott against the hockey sponsors.

“They were sponsored by Imperial Oil and Esso gas, and they cut up all their Esso credit cards and refused to buy their gas,” Robson said. “They were also mad at Molson, … the beer barons of Eastern Canada and Montreal, because Molson’s were also involved in sponsorship of the telecast. So they stopped buying Molson’s beer.”

The boycott must have paid off, because the gears turned and the Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL for the 1970 season – though it’s unclear if Buffalonians had to take any civic action to get their franchise. However, before any of that happened, Jim Robson almost took a fateful detour that would have brought him to Seattle.

Sometime in 1968, Robson heard about a job opening in Seattle as a broadcaster for the Seattle Pilots, the city’s first Major League Baseball team that debuted in 1969.

So, like any ambitious young professional, he applied for the job.

“Well, I didn’t get it,” Robson said. “I got a rejection letter, which I still have.”

Robson harbors no bitterness toward the Seattle Pilots – which is good, because they don’t exist anymore, and haven’t since the spring of 1970.

“That was one of the luckiest breaks of my entire life,” Robson said. “I had a mortgage and four children, and had I got the job in Seattle – the Pilots lasted one year and the franchise moved to Milwaukee – I would have been left in Seattle without a job.”

“As it turned out, the next year the National Hockey League expanded into Vancouver, and I got the job,” he added. “So you’ve got to be lucky.”

When the Canucks made their NHL debut on Oct. 9, 1970, skating to a 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Robson was part of the broadcast team.

The ticket was six dollars and fifty cents for the best seat in the house,” he described. “You won’t get a seat in Seattle for $6.50, but it was a time when everybody was pumped up about hockey and the Canucks were a tough competitive team their first year, although they faded late in the season.”

Jim Robson says that a lot has changed in the 50 years since that heady October in Vancouver. There are now 31 teams, and the Kraken will be number 32. He says the Kraken will have a much easier time as an expansion team than the Canucks did 50 years ago in terms of building their roster from players that they can draft from other teams.

Does Robson believe that there will be a natural rivalry between the Canucks and the Kraken?

“Well, it’ll be a hot ticket, I’ll tell you that, in Vancouver or Seattle,” Robson said. “There’ll be a rivalry because finally the Canucks will have an opponent that’s close by.”

Stephen Quinn is the host of the Early Edition on CBC Radio in Vancouver and he admits – insists, actually – that he’s not a sports guy. But the coming debut of the Kraken – the name of the team and the building where they’ll play, as well as what a nearby team might mean for Vancouver – has come up a few times on his popular daily program.

“I personally wanted it to become the ‘Seattle Grunge,’” Quinn said. “’Kraken’? I think I know what that is, but I mean, what’s a Canuck? I mean, well, a Canadian I suppose, but I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know the Kraken history in Seattle.”

“Also, I don’t know why you’d want to make people say that out loud,” he added.

For the record, Jim Robson was hoping the team would be called the Seattle Sea Lions.

But as for the possibilities of a rivalry — geographic proximity notwithstanding, since the teams currently nearest to the Canucks are the San Jose Sharks and the Calgary Flames – Quinn says there’s little question as to which NHL team is Vancouver’s bitterest hockey enemy, or, dare we say, their archrival.

“Probably Boston is the team that Vancouver hockey fans hate the most, of course, because of that Game 7 Stanley Cup defeat that led to a riot and cars burning in this city,” Quinn said. “And whenever Boston comes to town, everybody’s on edge. And I think all you have to do is count the penalty minutes between the two teams to figure out just how deep that rivalry goes.”

Could some kind of long-term battle – perhaps in a more neighborly, Northwest manner, though of course, we’d have to spell it “neighbourly” in Canada – develop between the Canucks and the Kraken?

“Sure,” Quinn said, though he added a series of qualifiers and didn’t sound all that convinced it was possible.

“I mean, most Vancouverites like Seattle. We have a lot of affection for Seattle. Seattle is kind of a sister city,” he said, describing the feelings of those who live in the city named for an explorer who made an impact south of the 49th parallel, too.

“So, I don’t know how you’re going to light a fire to get a rivalry going between the two teams.”

The post-Game 7 riot in June 2011 did do a lot of damage to property and to the city’s reputation, and it’s true that in their 50-plus years, the Vancouver Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup – though diehard Terminal City fans point to the Vancouver Millionaires, who did do just that in 1915. In that long-ago era, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria were part of a Northwest hockey ecosystem of sorts that thrived for years.

Maybe this shared frustration and unhealthy obsession with hundred-year-old victories is something to unite, at least initially, Kraken and Canucks fans. After all, if there’s one thing that Seattle sports fans understand, it’s a major league team that’s never won a championship.

Robson says it could be worse.

“When people complain about the [Canucks] never winning a cup – and there’s a lot of Toronto Maple Leaf fans coast-to-coast in Canada – I am happy to tell them to their face the Toronto Maple Leafs have not been in a Stanley Cup Final since they won the Cup in 1967 when there were only six teams in the league,” Robson said. “Vancouver, at least, has been in three finals, although they still haven’t won that first cup.”

Come this fall, “Release the Kraken!” as they say. And by “Release the Kraken,” we of course mean the new Seattle hockey team, and not that recent election conspiracy theory.

Special thanks to Jason Beck of the BC Sports Hall of Fame for his assistance with this story.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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