By Andy Eide
While it’s been over twenty years since it happened, Jamie Butt remembers the first goal the Tacoma Sabercats scored at their home rink in the Tacoma Dome.
He’s the one that scored it.
“It was kind of a greasy goal,” Butt recalls of the goal. “I just went hard to the net. I was getting dumped and just kind of threw it on net and it went in.”
The goal delighted the nearly 7,000 fans who came to the Tacoma Dome on an early November night in 1997 to witness something they had not seen before: professional hockey. Tacoma was previously home to major junior hockey and Seattle has a pro hockey history but it’s the Sabercats who are the region’s last pro team.
Butt’s goal sparked Tacoma to a 5-3 win over the Idaho Steelheads and the victory would be the first of 11 straight wins that the expansion team ripped off in its first West Coast Hockey League season.
“We had a really good team,” Butt says. “It was a good season for us.”
Lasting only five seasons it would be easy to write off the Sabercats as a failure but on the ice, the team was a success.
In the their first three seasons the Sabercats went 137-49-20 and reached the league finals every year, culminating in a Taylor Cup championship by beating the San Diego Gulls in season two. They scored a lot of goals as well, averaging over four-and-a-half per game that first year.
It’s hard to find a better start to a pro franchise in any sport but the league they played in had issues and was not set up for long term success.
The West Coast Hockey League began play in 1995 during a time where the minor league pro hockey landscape was much different than it is today. The International Hockey League and American Hockey League were the top level with teams in each league having NHL affiliations. Below those leagues the East Coast Hockey League and the Central Hockey League covered the East and Midwest.
A British Columbia businessman named Bruce Taylor saw a void out west and worked to berth the WCHL in 1995 with teams ranging from as far north as Alaska down to Arizona in the south. Taylor owned several franchises early on and the league’s championship trophy would be named after him.
He saw an opportunity in Tacoma and divested his interest in the Fresno Falcons, Reno Renegades, and the Bakersfield Fog to concentrate fully on the Sabercats for the 1997-1998 season.
“I loved Bruce,” Frank Colarusso, who served as the Sabercats Vice President of Marketing and Sales, says. “Bruce was good to me and my family. There was a mutual respect there and I liked working for him. Owners can drive you crazy but at the end of the day he was a good man.”
With no NHL affiliation, finding players to make up the roster was somewhat of a free for all. There was no draft so head coach and general manager John Oliver had to scour the free agent pool to find guys to contribute. They weren’t going to sign high end NHL prospects, but Oliver was able to put together competitive teams.
“These were guys who just wanted to play pro hockey as long as they could,” Sabercats radio play-by-play man Thom Buening says. “Some of the older guys came back from playing overseas in Europe…a lot of them came out of NCAA, Major Junior, Junior A, and some of our import guys were playing minor pro in Europe as well.”
Players from Europe came over as did several guys who had played junior in the area. Butt had played his junior hockey with the Tacoma Rockets and former Seattle Thunderbirds Danny Lorenz and Brett Duncan were among the names who came back to the Northwest to play hockey.
Tacoma’s best player may have been Dampy Brar, who played all five seasons with the Sabercats and is their all-time leading scorer with 330 points in 297 games. He represented Tacoma in all star games and was voted the most popular player by Tacoma’s fans. Brar topped the 20-goal mark in every season with Tacoma, twice eclipsing 30 goals.
His journey to Tacoma started in Alberta where he was playing with Concordia University College of Alberta. Current Seattle Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge was a teammate with Brar and thought that he had too much skill to be playing at that low a level.
“He said ‘what the hell are you doing here,” Brar says with a laugh.
La Forge would put Brar in touch with his father, who was an agent at the time. That led to Brar to getting looks in the Central Hockey League before landing in Tacoma in time for the Sabercats first season. Brar would play every year the club existed.
“You always heard of Seattle but Tacoma, I didn’t know how south it was,” he recalls. “Back then there was no online presence. We had to get out a map to find where it was.”
Brar was one of the first players of East Indian decent to play professional hockey and with his playing days behind him now, he is giving back to that community by co-running the APNA Hockey school in Canada to further develop players of diverse backgrounds.
The WCHL was very much a minor league and the Sabercats story certainly has a Bull Durham or Slapshot feel to it.
The league set up in cities that are not, and were not, traditional hockey hotbeds and featured some creative team names. There was the Gila Monsters in Tucson and the Ice Dogs in Long Beach that allowed for fun logos and mascots.
Perhaps the quirkiest name was the Bakersfield Fog.
“Their mascot looked like a moldy raisin.” Buening says of Bakersfield. “It was supposed to be fog. I think the last year I was there they changed (the name) to the Condors.”
Makeshift hockey arenas also littered the league. The Tacoma Dome was one of those but the league also saw a theater converted into an ice arena along with a handful of buildings who’s better days were behind them.
Buening, who currently calls the Seattle Thunderbirds games on the radio, had to make do with what he was given night in and night out. That included broadcasting from the stands and in one case, an office.
“Reno, they played in a convention center,” he says. “That’s where their ice was, like where you’d see a trade show. I broadcast from an office up on the wall. I slid the window open to broadcast. I had to duck my head out of this window in the corner to broadcast from this office. The phone’s ringing and I’m trying to call a game.”
While most of the travel for Tacoma was by plane, a nice upgrade for players who toiled on buses in junior hockey, there were still time for hi jinks.
After boarding one flight, Duncan and teammate Scott Drevitch broke out the cards while the rest of the passengers were boarding. As things often do between teammates, a friendly disagreement broke out that resulted in one of them giving the other a healthy punch.
A flight attendant witnessed the punch and thought the two players were going to be trouble. Despite assurances that it was all in good fun, they got kicked off the flight. Oliver, sensing a chance to bond his team together urged the rest of the players to get off the plane in solidarity with the ousted pair and followed them back to the terminal.
“He got up but nobody else got off, they walked off,” Beuning recalls. “We stayed there and flew without them. He said ‘lets go’ and everyone whispered ‘don’t get up’.”
The two players and coach had to hop on a different flight and met up with the team at their final destination.
“I was in the back with my Walkman headphones on,” Brar says of the incident. “I was a younger guy and thought ‘if they all get up, I’ll get up’.”
Despite the early success on the ice, the Sabercats struggled to draw fans.
They were virtually ignored by Seattle media and had a hard time marketing the sport to an area that at the time, was not chock full of hockey fans. The WHL’s Rockets moved out of Tacoma in 1995 but those fans weren’t enough to sustain a minor league franchise.
Over the five years the team existed they averaged under 5,000 fans per game. Their best season, attendance wise, was in 1998-1999 when the team averaged 4,878 per game during the season they would go on to win the league title.
“There was a fairly decent base of hockey fans that were left over from the Rockets,” Colarusso says. “Without disparaging the Tacoma Dome, they did everything they could to help us, but the building just wasn’t suited to being a great hockey facility. It was too big, and the sight lines weren’t good. We didn’t have a great building to play in over time.”
The Dome didn’t help the Sabercats cause.
Like the Rockets before them, it became clear that the multi-purpose dome built in 1980 was not conducive for hockey. The stands pulled away from the rink, leaving fans far away from the ice, making it hard to follow the action closely.
The building was big as well. Too big for junior or minor league hockey and a crowd of 5,000 fans, which would be a nice number for comparable minor leagues, left the building without any kind of intimate atmosphere.
“You walked in and it was a rink inside of a big dome.” Brar says. “The lighting wasn’t good and it wasn’t great for the fans who could of been a little bit closer…Tacoma had those challenges but as a player, the first three years, the way they ran their events, I can’t say it was a negative thing. I enjoyed playing there.”
There would be ticket promotions and at times the team would draw big crowds for a single game, only to see attendance drop off the next night. With 18,000 seats in the building there was no real incentive to buy season tickets as you could easily walk up and buy one hours before the game.
“We probably had a two to three thousand base who were die hard hockey fans, but we needed probably six to seven,” Colarusso says.
Prior to the 2000-2001 season, Oliver had moved on and was replaced behind the bench by Robert Dirk and the club struggled to two losing seasons in a row. Attendance dropped off significantly, dipping as low as 2,854 per game for the 2001-2002 final season.
Around the league, franchises were folding as the league dealt with financial instability. Taylor sold the club and when the new owners could not agree on a Tacoma Dome lease, the decision was made to fold the Sabercats.
“The end of Tacoma was sad,” Brar says. “I was voted most popular player, it was great to be recognized by the fans. It was appreciative to play for those fans, it was touching.”
Brar would play one more season in the league, finishing his career in Boise with the Steelheads.
Several of the WCHL teams merged into the ECHL and some are still operating. The Idaho Steelheads are the ECHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars and after changing from the Fog to the Condors, Bakersfield jumped into the AHL and are now the affiliate for the Edmonton Oilers. After folding from the ECHL in 2006, the Gulls were hatched again in 2015 when the Anaheim Ducks moved their AHL franchise to San Diego, giving new life to one of the top WCHL franchises.
The Sabercats were short lived but provided entertainment and good hockey for fans in the south end. They won early, won a title, and for the next year, until NHL Seattle begins play, will be known as the last pro hockey in the Puget Sound area.
The base of fans that Colarusso mentioned are still around and from time to time at a game in Kent’s ShoWare Center, you will spot a Sabercats sweater in the crowd.
Gone, but not forgotten.