‘Chess match’ begins for Seattle’s NHL franchise

Irfaan Gaffar caught up with senior advisor to NHL Seattle franchise Dave Tippett, who was confident this would happen right from the start, and discusses whether he’ll throw his name in as first head coach.

SEA ISLAND, Ga. — They have been at this for so long that the joy couldn’t be contained when Seattle made its long-awaited return to hockey.

Tod Leiweke, the team CEO, raised his left fist in celebration after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman officially gave the city its 32nd franchise. Jerry Bruckheimer, the wildly successful Hollywood producer and a minority partner in NHL Seattle, sat in the front row giddily snapping photos on a digital camera.

David Bonderman, the majority owner, was asked about the possibility of an NBA team eventually returning to the Pacific Northwest as well and responded: “One miracle at a time.”

There was no suspense about this announcement at the conclusion of the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting, but there was relief. The league has long had Seattle at the top of its list of desired destinations and Tuesday’s expansion vote passed with unanimous approval.

The enthusiasm wasn’t even dampened by a launch for the 2021-22 season — something league officials pushed for to ensure there was adequate time to complete the $800-million Seattle Center Arena project.

Sometimes the best things are worth waiting for.

The Seattle ownership group badly wanted a 2020 start date after collecting more than 32,000 season-ticket deposits in one day. They hoped to reward that article of faith from fans as quickly as possible. But the deeper they got into discussions with league officials the more they came around to the value of having another year to get ready.

“I have business cards I’m going to have to toss out that say Seattle 2020,” said Leiweke. “This is an organization that’s going to be built around our fans, and as we thought about this on behalf of our fans, we realized that perhaps we wouldn’t open the season with our fans in our new building, perhaps the training centre wouldn’t be ready. Now, an expansion draft will be held in our building.

“Our players can skate at that training centre in time for our first [training] camp, and we know opening day will be truly spectacular. So waiting a little longer seemed to make a lot of sense and we ultimately agreed with the league.”

It remains to be seen how the extra time will affect the construction of the hockey operations department.

They may still hire a general manager as soon as this coming spring, which would give the successful candidate two seasons to prepare for a June 2021 expansion draft. That will be conducted under the same rules given to the Vegas Golden Knights and ensures that every player currently in the NHL today will have to either be protected or made available.

“The chess match begins,” said Leiweke.

There is also the matter of a name and logo to be sorted out. A team known as the Seattle Metropolitans captured the Stanley Cup in 1917, but Bettman hinted the NHL didn’t favour that nickname since it already boasts a Metropolitan Division.

Other possibilities include the Totems, Kraken and Sasquatch.

The Seattle ownership group already seems to possess a top-end sense of occasion, including flying Beverley Parsons, the niece of original Seattle Metropolitans owners Frank and Lester Patrick, in for Tuesday’s announcement.

The only thing that kept them from joining the NHL sooner was the presence of a viable building. It’s telling that shovels will be put in the ground on the site of KeyArena during a momentous ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday morning.

There’s no time to waste.

“Part of the DNA of this ownership group is we’re extremely competitive,” said Leiweke. “And we’re here to win. And we want to win. So we’re going to look at these timelines [with a 2021-22 start] and how it can be put to our advantage.

“We’re going to make the best use of this time. And ultimately, for our fans, this will be a good thing. Not only will the building be on time, but we’re going to be really sharp on the hockey side of things as well.”

In the eyes of the NHL, this decision was a no-brainer. Bettman said the addition of Seattle makes his league “more balanced, even more whole and even more vibrant.” It also comes with a $650-million expansion fee, which will be split by the Original 30 owners with Vegas being exempted.

The arrival of Seattle will allow the NHL to have four eight-team divisions, with Arizona shifting over to the Central and ceding a spot in the Pacific.

The league likes that it will provide a natural geographical rival for Vancouver while filling a need in a city under-served for professional sports. There has been a hole in the winter calendar there since the NBA’s SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.

“It’s a young, dynamic, engaged market that supports its professional sports franchises,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “It’s an area of the continent that can be served well by a NHL team. It’s good, solid ownership, it’s going to have a first-rate arena. There’s not a whole lot not to like.”

From afar, this has long felt more like “when” than “if.”

But for those in Seattle it’s been an excruciating process full of stops and starts, and several failed arena projects. There was even a botched NHL expansion attempt in the 1970s because of a missed payment.

Soon, it will all be nothing but a distant memory.

“Sixteen years ago they started saying that the arena didn’t work,” said Leiweke. “Over the course of that time, we lost a NBA team, we’re not even close to where we should be relative to concerts. And how can a world-class city like Seattle not have a world-class arena?

“So tomorrow we break ground and we solve that issue. Tomorrow we start building and it’s really exciting.”

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