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Saturday, April 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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WHL

Yuill signs Everett lease; T-birds owner will sell team to buy new WHL franchise

Special to The Seattle Times

EVERETT — When Seattle Thunderbirds owner Bill Yuill declared, "We're moving to Everett!" he meant himself and his wallet.

He got some company on the moving van yesterday after officially signing the lease to the Everett special-events center that will house the Western Hockey League's newest team.

Everett resident Ron Olson, a T-birds season-ticket holder for more than 20 years, said, "I'm first in line," to invest in the expansion club that will debut in the 2003-04 season. He's one of at least 16 individuals, including one from Island County and another from the Bellingham area, who want to be part of the major-junior hockey league's 20th franchise.

They're a bit early, for all Yuill has at the moment is his signature on a lease whose terms he flippantly described as "too long ... too expensive." Yuill and his company, EHT, Inc., have a 10-year deal with renewal options.

It's all for a team without a name, general manager, coach, players, rink, administrative office or telephone. Those will be announced later, after Yuill complies with WHL bylaws by selling the T-birds.

WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said, "Now that the process of establishing the expansion team in Everett is complete, we need to turn our full attention to the sale of the Seattle Thunderbirds. We'd like to have all that concluded by the end of May. We don't feel it can go on beyond that."

Everett Mayor Ed Hansen said educating the general population about hockey "will take awhile. But hopefully, in the early years, while it's a novelty, there will be a number of young people who'll become interested and become fans in the future. Our population base — the entire county — is approaching 700,000."

Hansen traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich., Peoria, Ill., Topeka, Kan., and the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa "to see if these types of facilities were working in other communities." He also shadowed the T-birds on their eastern swing through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to visit rinks and acquire a sense of what WHL hockey is like. He said he was impressed by the discovery that more than a few WHL fans follow their teams to road games.

Robison told a gathering of about 60 at Everett Station yesterday that the Snohomish County city "is a perfect fit in every sense." Referring to the arena's plan for dual ice sheets, he said the WHL expects the community to "provide us a world-class facility for us to display our product, but more importantly, to provide the city of Everett with the opportunity to expand and grow interest in ice sports."

The Everett hockey team will be the primary tenant of the 8,200-seat venue that will occupy two city blocks on the southwest corner of Broadway and Hewitt avenues. Despite pending litigation, groundbreaking is set for Tuesday. Hansen said a hearing is scheduled for early May.

"Our city's lawyers and the Everett Public Facilities District lawyers say the initiative itself is invalid and it's too late," Hansen said. "Obviously a judge will have to decide."

The Everett team will join the U.S. Division, completing the WHL's realignment plan to balance its Western and Eastern conferences with four five-team segments. Other U.S. Division teams are the T-birds, Spokane, Tri-City and Portland.

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