NEW YORK — The NHL is moving forward with plans to expand to Seattle.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday the Board of Governors’ executive committee recommended proceeding with Seattle’s expansion application, with an eye on voting to approve the league’s 32nd franchise in December. The recommendation came a few hours after key stakeholders presented their case to the committee and hit it off enough that Seattle could be awarded a team two months from now.
"The notion is have the board vote on expansion," Bettman said. "And assuming, as I think everybody is, that it would be approved — I don’t want to be presumptuous of the board’s prerogative — but everything seems to be on track."
It was the best possible news that could have come out of the meetings for proponents of the NHL in Seattle. Bettman agreed with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan that the preference is for the team to begin play in the 2020-21 season, and that’s still a very real possibility as long as renovations to KeyArena in downtown Seattle proceed as scheduled.
"I’m very confident we’re going to be able to move forward and get what we need from the NHL and the team and stick to the schedule so we have hockey in 2020," Durkan said. "They know we want it in 2020 and (the league would) like to have it in 2020, too, if we get the team."
When the board next meets Dec. 3-4, Bettman expects a full report on Seattle expansion and said the goal is to for the governors to vote at that time, with 24 of 32 needed for approval. It’s conceivable the board votes to give Seattle the green light for 2020 contingent on the arena with the option to push things back to 2021 if necessary.
Approval seems assured at this point. Bettman said the endorsement by the nine-owner executive committee "speaks volumes," and it seems unlikely the board will turn down a $650 million expansion fee for the opportunity to expand to the U.S. Pacific Northwest, provide a natural geographic rival for the Vancouver Canucks and balance the Eastern and Western conferences at 16 teams each.
"It looks good," Vancouver owner Francesco Aquilini said. "It’s exciting. We want a team in Seattle. It’s great for Vancouver. It’s great for the league. It’s eventually going to happen. KeyArena is going to be built. So I think it’s imminent."
After meeting with the executive committee for well over an hour, Durkan, Seattle Hockey Partners President and CEO Tod Leiweke, majority owner David Bonderman did not want to do a victory lap yet.
"It’s been a long time coming and we can be patient," Leiweke said.
Tod’s brother, Tim, Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer and fellow minor owner David Wright were also part of the contingent that made what Bettman called an "excellent" presentation.
"With the mayor’s help, what we tried to get across was Seattle is ready for a team, we got potentially a facility that will get built, a partnership with the city and away we go," Bonderman said. "All we need is a franchise."
The NHL had been at 30 teams since 2000 when it decided in 2016 to expand to Las Vegas. The Golden Knights began play a year ago and made a stirring run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season.
That process began with a season-ticket drive the league approved in the winter of 2014 to see if Las Vegas would be a viable hockey market. Seattle sold 10,000 season-ticket deposits in 12 minutes, and team officials say they now have 32,000 as excitement builds for the return of a major professional winter sports team in the biggest U.S. market without one.
The ticket numbers, a plan to renovate KeyArena and a video showcasing the benefits of Seattle expansion were all part of the presentation at the league office. What did not come up in that meeting was the status of the collective bargaining agreement, which the owners or players could choose in September 2019 to terminate effective Sept. 15, 2020.
Bettman downplayed the buzz about a potential 2020 work stoppage and said arena construction was a bigger hindrance to a 2020 start for Seattle.
"They have a lot of work to do initially," Bettman said. "They’ve got to stop using KeyArena, there’s some demolition, they’ve got to dig a bigger hole, they’ve got to put the steel in. Once that’s all accomplished … we’ll have a better sense. But everybody’s goal is 2020 if it can be accomplished. If it’s not, then we’ll do it in ’21."