WENATCHEE — As the community comes to terms with losing the only professional hockey team it’s ever had, fans, community groups and hockey parents reflected Tuesday on the impact the Wenatchee Wild has had over the last five years.
“I’m very, very sorry to see them going,” said Lori Kostors, executive director of the Wenatchee Valley Senior Activity Center, which has had a connection with the team since before they played their first game in Wenatchee. “They’ve done amazing things for Wenatchee and have been a great group of people to be involved with.”
“But sometimes business decisions are made for reasons we’ll never know,” she added. “I wish them well.”
The North American Hockey League announced Tuesday that the team was moving to Texas, where it would become the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees.
The news was greeted with shock and disbelief, sadness and anger at Wenatchee city officials, Town Toyota Center management and the team’s owners.
But none expressed any ill will toward the players, or “the boys” as they are fondly called, who have spent hours volunteering in the community, reading to school children, serving lunch to senior citizens, raising money for nonprofits, and serving as role models to young hockey players.
When the team bus rolled into the Town Toyota Center parking lot Tuesday afternoon, the tired players were greeted by dozens of cheering fans.
The team has until Monday to clear out of the arena they’ve called home since 2008.
It was five years ago this week that it was first announced that an NAHL team would be playing in the arena, then still under construction. While the team wouldn’t play its first game until October 2008, that summer president and co-owner Bill Stewart laid the groundwork for the team’s presence in the community.
“He walked into my office here and said he just moved here and was going to play some hockey at the new center,” Kostors recalled. “He asked if we’d be interested in having some volunteers.”
Team has helped the center raise money through fund-raising activities and also served lunches at the center, often sitting down to eat with seniors who hailed from their home states.
“The seniors just loved them,” she said. “One of the greatest memories that sticks in my mind is challenging the team to a Wii bowling tournament. They showed up with their uniforms on and the seniors beat the socks off the boys.”
The Wild players have also been familiar faces in area schools. At Grant Elementary School in East Wenatchee, players came almost weekly to read to kids and participated in the “Read With the Wild” family literacy night that involved hundreds of students and their families.
“The Wenatchee Wild Hockey Team invested so much in our school to promote literacy the past several years,” said Principal Spencer Taylor. “Their participation in our school has been incredibly valuable to our students.”
The players have also inspired children to play hockey over the last five years, said Dave Shoults of East Wenatchee, whose son plays in the Wenatchee Amateur Hockey Association program. His daughter will start playing this fall.
“They only reason they want to play is because the Wild came to their school and read to them,” he said. “My kids just fell in love with them.”
Shoults said he fears that fewer children will turn out for hockey this fall without a strong Wild presence in the community.
“It’s an expensive sport, and parents aren’t going to pay money if their kids aren’t nagging and nagging them to play,” he said. “Kids won’t be doing that if the players aren’t out there talking up hockey. It’s going to hurt youth hockey.”
But local officials are not too worried that the team’s departure will be a blow to the arena’s budget. Arena officials have said the team contributed $265,000 of the facility’s nearly $3 million annual revenues.
Still, Chelan Mayor Bob Goedde said he hopes arena officials find a replacement team by this year. He said he was surprised how many Chelan residents were Wild fans. Last year, the Chelan City Council reluctantly voted to allow a public vote on a sales tax increase to help pay off the debt. At the time, city officials feared for the long-term viability of the arena, particularly if the team were to leave.
“I’m sorry to see them go,” said Wenatchee City Councilman Tony Veeder. “But will they be able to keep the doors open (at the Town Toyota Center), keep skating and keep having concerts and events? Sure they will.”
He added that he hopes the arena’s board can find a new hockey team that the community will support.
“Sometimes that can be difficult — kind of like a first love vs. a second marriage,” he added.
He called the Wild “one of the best branding enterprises Wenatchee has ever seen. There was an electric spark there that the community is certainly going to miss.”
The Wenatchee Valley Sports Council has calculated that the Wild had a $4 million annual impact on the local economy, mostly in money spent by local fans. That includes money spent at restaurants, some hotels, and money spent at games.
“They’ve played a huge role in sports in the valley for the last five years,” said Matt Kearney, marketing director for the council. “They brought in an average of 3,000 fans per game, which was a first for a sport in NCW.”
But he said the long-term impact of their departure will depend entirely on how quickly the arena can bring in another team by this fall that plays at a similar caliber to the Wild.
“I wish they could have worked things out to stay,” he said. “But we’re immediately looking to the future — pedal to the metal. Let’s see what we can get in here now.”
He said recent statements by some fans that they would never support another team are most likely just spoken in the heat of the moment.
“I have confidence in the Town Toyota Center people bring in a good level hockey team. And once they are here, this community is great and I think we’ll embrace them.”
Wenatchee businessman Josh Tarr, who helped spearhead an effort last year to gain public support for the sales tax increase, said of the team’s departure, “We’re heartbroken, almost like losing a member of the family. But I’m confident (that) hockey will continue to thrive in Wenatchee, with or without the Wild. We’ve built a great hockey infrastructure, community and facility to insure that.”
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152