Micah Rice: Serve up Cascadia rivalry over ice

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 
photoMicah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548 or micah.rice@columbian.com.

Word is the Arena Football League may soon return to Portland.

That's, um, great.

I would rather spend summer evenings outdoors than watch freakish football that gets more buzz for its aging rock star owners than the product on the field. But more power to you if that's your beat.

But for a real splash in the Portland sports scene, look to the frozen pond.

Yes, the National Hockey League.

Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen has reportedly made overtures to bring a team to Portland. The NHL is also considering Seattle for an expansion franchise.

I say, why not both?

The NHL need only look at the league climbing above it on America's sports totem pole — Major League Soccer.

Average attendance at MLS games set records in both 2011 and 2012. Not coincidentally, 2011 also saw the rebirth of the Cascadia rivalry. Portland, Seattle and Vancouver all rank in the top seven in league attendance.

Could the NHL capture that same Cascadia magic? I believe it could.

The Portland Winterhawks and Seattle Thunderbirds rivalry has been healthy for years. Three out of six faceoffs last season at the Rose Garden drew more than 10,000.

The average Winterhawks attendance of 6,687 last year is close to the 6,854 the Portland Timbers averaged from 2001-09 in the lower tiers of U.S. pro soccer. And this is Soccer City U.S.A.

When the MLS came to town, attendance exploded. Call it small-market insecurity syndrome, but when Portland fans flock to top-tier sports, part of the thrill is seeing the Rose City in the same league as the New Yorks and Chicagos of the nation.

Portland fans might also be in for some sticker shock. NHL tickets are on par with the NBA, while most Winterhawks tickets are between $15 and $30. But Timbers tickets aren't exactly cheap, and that hasn't kept the crowds away.

Sure, the NHL has its issues. Lockouts have been as common as a hard freeze in January.

The league's southward migration in the 1990s, driven by population shifts and the declining Canadian dollar, has run its course. The Phoenix Coyotes were on the verge of leaving in the past year until a new arena deal was approved.

To the NHL, I say come north.

Also, this season will see 16 teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference and only 14 in the West.

To the NHL, I say come west.

Two untapped markets that have track record of supporting top-tier teams. A natural geographic rivalry in a region where it actually snows in winter.

North America's coldest sport should receive a warm welcome in the Northwest.

Micah Rice is The Columbian's Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.rice@columbian.com or on Twitter @col_mrice. Read his blog, Tailgate Talk, at blogs.columbian.com/tailgate-talk.