When the Tacoma Rockets joined the Western Hockey League in 1991 there was a great hope that a natural and heated rivalry with the Seattle Thunderbirds would be borne.
Geography and frequency of play seemed to be the perfect formula for such a thing to occur.
The Rockets lasted just four seasons in Tacoma before packing up their gear and heading north to Kelowna. The rivalry with Seattle never did materialize the way many hoped.
Friday night, the Kelowna Rockets will be at the ShoWare Center to open up the Western Conference finals with the Thunderbirds as Game 1 will get going at 7:30. It’s the second straight year the two former Puget Sound neighbors will play for the conference title and the fourth time in five years they will meet in the post season.
With that kind of frequency, how come the Rockets and Thunderbirds doesn’t feel like a big rivalry?
Facing off in the playoffs usually breeds contempt and hockey hatred, but for some reason, these two clubs have yet to have their slow simmer of a rivalry boil over.
Current T-Birds play-by-play voice Thom Buening has been on both sides of the fence here. Buening was the Rockets radio voice for their last season in Tacoma in 1994-95.
“I think both franchises envisioned a heated rivalry,” he says. “Tacoma’s first ever game was against Seattle…I’m sure they had dreams of filling the Tacoma Dome and the coliseum (Key Arena) with large playoff crowds. Unfortunately, in the years the Rockets called Tacoma home, the two teams never met in the postseason.”
The teams have played in the post season since however.
This week’s series will be the eighth time the two franchises have met and yet, still, there is no real animosity. When the Rockets come to town it doesn’t raise the hair on the back of one’s neck the way it does when the Portland Winterhawks, or Everett Silvertips are lined up on the other side of the ice.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been some spectacular moments in this rivalry of late.
The series the two teams played in 2013 was one for the ages. Seattle was a heavy underdog and jumped out to a shocking 3-0 series lead behind three overtime victories. The third coming in dramatic fashion as defenseman Evan Wardley scored from the point in what was perhaps the loudest moment in the history of the ShoWare Center.
Kelowna came back in that series to force a Game 7. That game would go into overtime as well, the fifth of the seven games to do so, after Seattle’s Luke Lockhart tied the game in the waning seconds. Lockhart just missed a chance to win in overtime before Kelowna’s Tyson Baillie won it at the other end.
The Rockets would then sweep Seattle in 2014 during the second round which set up last season’s Western Conference finals. The T-Birds would sweep that series but it wasn’t easy.
Seattle had to go and grind out two tough wins in Kelowna to start the series and then finished it up by forcing an overtime with two late goals in Game 4. Kelowna’s goalie Michael Herringer – who will be in net on Friday – stopped 71 shots before giving up the winner to Mathew Wedman in the second overtime period.
Up until last season, the Rockets had come out on top of the recent match ups in the playoffs. Perhaps that is the reason for the lack of fire in this rivalry.
Current Rockets radio voice, Regan Bartel, feels that the results may play into it.
“The more you lose against someone, the natural tendency is to disdain them more,” Bartel says. “If the pendulum moves more towards the T-Birds side in the next few years, look for the hostilities to increase between the two fan bases.”
Seattle ended Kelowna’s shot at back-to-back WHL Finals apperances last spring and now will look to return the favor, starting this weekend. If Seattle wins, that will be two years and a row that the Thunderbirds have kept Kelowna out of the league finals.
Perhaps, no matter what the outcome, these two teams will find a reason to ramp up the rivalry a little more. This series will not be a walk in the park for either club and it could just turn out that, a second straight fight for the conference title, is the spark that is needed to ignite a new, but still old, rivalry.