BELLINGHAM - There was considerable improvement and inspired action on the ice, along with great enthusiasm among a standing-room-only crowd plus excitement and smiles in the ticket office.
Even one of the mothers of a starting player for a league-leading opponent was excited to see junior hockey back in Bellingham at the Sportsplex.
The Bellingham Blazers began a new era in local amateur hockey in their 5-3 loss to the Northern Pacific Hockey League Tier III leading West Sound Warriors of Bremerton on Saturday, Oct. 20. The loss represented great improvement over Bellingham's 10-2 loss to the Warriors - who have 62 goals in their first seven games - on Oct. 4 in the first game in the Blazers' history.
Nobody appreciates the new era more than 18-year-old Mason Wade, who began playing local youth hockey at age 5 and last year moved from Bellingham to Montana in order to keep his career going.
"We didn't have a midget team (in the Whatcom Warriors' program) last year. I went to Helena so I could play on a junior team in a league there," Wade, a quick, talented center, said before the game. "It's really nice to be back. I was pretty homesick. I love Bellingham a lot."
And Bellingham seems ready to love the Blazers. That includes Sudden Valley resident Nettie Knabb, whose 18-year-old son, Aidan Knabb, moved to Bremerton a couple of years back and started for West Sound.
"I'm very excited to have junior hockey back in Bellingham," said Nettie, indicating how happy she is for local parents and fans, many of whom she became friends with during Aidan's days in the Bellingham youth leagues. "I'm a true hockey mom. This is great for Bellingham."
For the record, Cody Rich of Bellingham scored the Blazers' first home goal on assists from Gerin Hohl and Kyle Neith, creating a huge roar among the fans with 6 minutes and 18 seconds left in the first period. The goal stood up for a 1-0 lead going into the second period, but potent West Sound - which came in with a 5-1 record and leading the six-team NORPAC with 57 goals scored - tallied four goals in the second sessions, by Kai Wilkins, Dominic Kolbeins, Brian Farkas and Josh Twietmeyer.
The Blazers answered with one score, by Micky Turner on passes from Wade and Kyler Moore, to cut West Sound's lead to 4-2 after 40 minutes. West Sound (6-1) scored in the third period and the Blazers countered with a goal by Adam Papayoanou, assisted by Rich and Hohl.
The Blazers' next home game will be on Friday, Oct. 26. They have a 40-game schedule, with 20 at home, but 11 of their first 13 games are on the road.
Lance Calloway, general manager of the Blazers, said before the game that he expected about 200 fans to show up, though he then said he hoped to double that later this season.
Instead, he doubled his expectation in the Blazers' home debut, ticket taker Kasey Lervold confirmed.
"This is great! We sold 216 adult tickets and 101 youth/senior tickets, and that doesn't count our 22 season tickets," she said while taking the 217th adult ticket order at the end of the first period. "We don't charge parents and (host families for the Blazers from outside Whatcom County), so altogether, we just about doubled the 200 fans we expected. It's a good thing we had extra help ready. Lots of different people showed up - kids, seniors, college students."
Calloway, who wears several local sports hats, said the team "can accommodate from 400 to 500 fans and even up to about 650."
The ushers proved that by asking people to squeeze in just a bit tighter in some of the seating areas. There is also plenty of standing room, as dozens of fans showed, and you can't get closer to the pulse-pounding action of hockey than at the Sportsplex.
Calloway called the local hockey team "local, live and lively" and invited fans to see what all the excitement is about.
"I think this is tons of fun," Mount Baker senior Kristjan Toivola said. He's a 17-year-old who traveled thousands of miles last season for games and practices in a Canadian league. "It's great to be playing at home."
Should fans of hockey - even fans of the NHL, which has seen its season delayed by the owners' player lockout - give the Blazers a look?
"Absolutely," said Toivola. "This is awesome. The more people who come to watch us, the more they'll really like it and keep coming back."
The Blazers came in with a 1-5 record, but coach Mark Collins, a 38-year-old local hockey lifer who is thoroughly enthralled by the game, pointed out before the game that the team had made steady improvement, and Saturday night's 5-3 loss showed how. Not only did the Blazers split two overtime games, they have not lost by more than two goals in any of their six games following a 10-2 loss to potent West Sound in the franchise's first game, on Oct. 4.
"Our results in those first six games weren't indicative of our improvement," Collins said. "We're trying to make Bellingham a destination place for kids to come and play. All our kids (15 to 19) are serious about the game."
Even so, Wade likes the fast-paced, free-wheeling style Collins encourages. Wade thinks the fans will like it too.
"This is my second year playing on this level," said Wade, who like Toivola wants to earn a college hockey scholarship. "I really like the (offensive tactical) freedom Mark provides." `
"It's taken some adjusting to play at this level, but I'm starting to be a lot more comfortable," he said.
Aside from the beauty of the Blazers' first period at home, the game even opened with someone special singing the national anthem. Multi-sport Squalicum standout Gina Flint, a senior who is one of the best combinations of vocal and athletic talent in the area, gave a flawless rendition and the fans showed their appreciation with a huge cheer.