Silvertips alumni come home in NHL exhibition game

EVERETT — The last time Marysville resident Gary Gusinsky watched a live National Hockey League exhibition game in Washington state, Wayne Gretzky was competing as a prolific forward for the Los Angeles Kings.

This time, the hockey legend was involved as coach and part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, who fell 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Sept. 22 preseason game at Comcast Arena.

Gusinsky has been a ticketholder for the Everett Silvertips since the Western Hockey League expanded to 20 teams for the 2003-04 season and hasn't missed a game in three years, he said. Before that, he went to Seattle Thunderbirds games at the Seattle Center Coliseum, better known today as Key Arena.

"This is better," he said, referring to Comcast Arena, which opened in 2003 and also hosts Washington Stealth lacrosse games. "It's a better barn to watch hockey in. The fans are closer to the ice. It's more fan friendly."

But when you love hockey as much as Gusinsky and his 7-year-old son Nikolai do, there's room in one's heart for more than just the Silvertips. Although Gusinsky grew up on the south side of the 49th parallel, his Canadian relatives' enthusiasm for the sport was contagious, and the Marysville man became a Vancouver Canucks fan. Growing up in Sedro Woolley, winters were rarely cold enough to maintain an outdoor skating rink throughout the winter. But the sport has caught on with a younger generation. Nikolai prefers the St. Louis Blues, which features Mount Vernon native T.J. Oshie, a 22-year-old forward who played youth hockey in the Seattle area before pursuing his talent as a prep player in Minnesota and later at collegiate powerhouse University of North Dakota.

"Oshie is great for hockey in this area. It's starting to grow," said the elder Gusinsky. "T.J. comes back every year and holds a camp. He hasn't forgotten where he came from."

However the Gusinskys, including Gary's wife Michelle, put aside their NHL allegiances for the evening to cheer for the Coyotes, who enjoyed a home ice advantage thanks to their roster, which included former Tips forward Peter Mueller and defenseman Shaun Heshka, the latter of whom started against the Lightning. Mueller, who is recovering from an injury, did not play.

The NHL preseason game also brought the spotlight to Snohomish County and the Silvertips' fervent fan base, said Tips vice president Doug Soetaert, himself a former professional hockey goalkeeper.

"People come out in droves to watch our hockey club. It's exciting to our athletes," he said, adding that the enthusiasm from the crowd impressed both teams' general managers and brought the NHL game to a higher level. "Our fans were into it. The energy was there, and it rubs off on the players."

Given the financial woes facing several league teams including the Coyotes, Soetaert said he didn't foresee the league expanding or relocating any teams to the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else in the near future. But aside from the lack of an appropriate venue, an NHL franchise would be a good fit in the Seattle metro area that just lost recently lost the Sonics, he said.

"You have no other form of sports entertainment during the winter months. I feel pretty confident saying that it would be able to survive," he said. "The corporate sponsors are here, the fan base is here. I think you'd be able to attract a very loyal fan base."

Note: On Sept. 24, Wayne Gretzky resigned as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

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