Seattle NHL talks far too premature until arena issue solved

Tim-Leiweke,-CEO-of-the-Oak-View-Group,-centre,-speaks-during-a-news-conference-as-Seattle-Mayor-Ed-Murray-looks-on-at-right-on-Wednesday,-June-7,-2017,-in-front-of-KeyArena-in-Seattle.-Murray-said-the-city-will-enter-into-negotiations-with-the-Oak-View-Group-on-a-proposal-for-a-privately-financed-renovation-of-the-city-owned-KeyArena.-Plans-for-the-remodel-would-bring-the-building-up-to-standards-that-could-attract-an-NHL-or-NBA-franchise-once-completed.-(Ted-S.-Warren/AP)

Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

There are still funding issues to be dealt with, and traffic concerns to be addressed, but it would appear that Seattle is inching closer to getting a state-of-the-art arena, and with it, hope of landing an NHL or NBA team.

The City of Seattle has entered into an exclusive relationship with Oak View Group — led by former AEG and MLSE executive Tim Leiweke and backed by Live Nation’s Irving Azoff and MSG’s James Dolan — with an eye towards renovating the old KeyArena.

Azoff and Dolan have already successfully worked together on a project like this, giving re-birth to The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

They have now partnered with Leiweke on a similar concert venue in Las Vegas, and are all part (with the New York Islanders and Mets) fn a potential new arena in Belmont, N.Y., for the Islanders.

There appears be a couple of hurdles to clear here.

The first is for Seattle City Council to decide if they like the financial plan and design of renovating KeyArena, as opposed to the project led by Chris Hansen close to the football and baseball stadiums, in the so-called SoDo district. That’s a debate for locals to have. There are plenty of voices in the Pacific Northwest, from the Port Authority to AEG to local sports legends, past (Lenny Wilkens) and present (Russell Wilson), that can hash out where the arena will go, and whether it makes more sense to renovate a 55-year-old building as opposed to building from scratch. But when it appears on the surface, that the OVG proposal calls for little or no public money, it might be tough to refuse.

The second one is the debate on how truly close the possibility of Seattle actually getting an NHL team is.

Does it make sense? Absolutely. Seattle is the 13th-biggest television market in the United States. It is a robust, modern city with tremendous sports pedigree, and a rich hockey history. Old-timers can tell you of the exploits of the Old Western Pro League’s Seattle Totems. And with two CHL teams, in suburban Kent (home of the Thunderbirds) and nearby Everett, there is no fear that this is a non-hockey market.

For the past decade, the local regional sports network has carried a package of Vancouver Canucks regional broadcasts and Seattle is usually high among non-NHL cities in the TV ratings when it comes to the Stanley Cup Final.

Seattle could be a great NHL city. But it needs a modern, state-of-the-art, indoor sports and entertainment centre. That they don’t is embarrassing. Even recent history suggests that Seattle would be a successful hockey town.

Within NHL circles, it’s well-known that when Hansen failed in his bid to lure the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to Seattle, it was viewed with a few long faces in the New York office of the NHL. And there was also a contingency plan during the last work stoppage to place the faltering Arizona Coyotes at KeyArena, using a portable ice making system (because it was removed during the last renovation) until a new arena was constructed.

 
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So here’s the rub. Earlier in the week, Leiweke was quoted as saying, “We’re going to get you a team. Mark it right here. I promise you … we’re going to get you at least one team.”

And while he did say the NBA has little appetite to expand right now, there were subtle hints that an NHL team was a slam dunk, or should I say, an empty net. But truthfully, there have been no real discussions with the NHL.

It would appear, on this topic, he’s making it seem like he has something going with the NHL and he doesn’t; the expansion process is over, and at this point, there is nothing to suggest a new expansion window will open soon.

Adding high profile names like David Bonderman (a minority owner of the Boston Celtics) and Bonderman’s friend, movie mogul Jerry Bruckheimer (a hockey die-hard who kicked tires in Las Vegas 10 years ago) to the project, just fuelled the perception that hockey was a sure thing.

The other name mentioned was that of Jeremy Jacobs, the Boston Bruins owner and chairman of the NHL board, and a leading arena concessionaire. While Jacobs’ company, Delaware North, will participate in Oak View’s potential renovation of KeyArena, it does not guarantee an NHL team is imminent.

Remember, Jacobs was also active in the Markham, Ont., arena project that never got past that city’s council.

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It was also interesting to see Francesco Aquilini present at the Tuesday press conference, suggesting that NHL owners were in agreement with him that Seattle would be a great hockey town. Makes you wonder if Gary Bettman gave the Canucks owner his blessing to be there? I’m told by someone familiar with events of the day, Aquilini (who has a working arrangement with Oak View Group) was there on his own, and without league sanction.

The key to all of this is not getting NHL fans in the Puget Sound area all worked up, or worked up too soon. There have been no talks with the NHL about an expansion team. Or a relocated team.

So in truth, Seattle is nowhere closer to getting an NHL team today as it was before Oak View Group’s press conference on Tuesday. With the Vegas team now so close to hitting the ice, remember that the NHL took applications for expansion franchises two years ago. Only two cities bid, and only one got a team.

Seattle did not bid. Seattle could not bid, because there was no viable facility at the time. The potential timeline for KeyArena has renovation/construction starting 12 months from now, and the new Seattle Arena open for business in 2020, but even that talk is premature.

The City of Seattle and Oak View will take the next six months to negotiate an MOU (memorandum of understanding) for the arena, and from the sounds of it, there’s a long way to go before they get one.

It will be then, and only then, that conversations about Seattle and the NHL can be viewed with potential for fans in the Northwest.

Nothing is imminent.

As one source told me, “Tim is way overplaying this. He needs to get the arena done first.”

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