Seat­tle set to join the NHL

The Sault Star - - SPORTS - STEPHEN WHYNO

SEA IS­LAND, Ga. — Seat­tle is get­ting a Na­tional Hockey League team. It will just have to wait a lit­tle bit longer to drop the puck.

The NHL Board of Gover­nors unan­i­mously ap­proved adding Seat­tle as the league’s 32nd fran­chise on Tues­day, with play set to be­gin in 2021 in­stead of 2020 to al­low enough time for arena ren­o­va­tions. The as-yet un­named fran­chise will be the Emer­ald City’s first ma­jor win­ter sports team since the NBA’s Su­perSon­ics left town in 2008.

“To­day is a day for cel­e­bra­tion in a great city that adores and avidly sup­ports its sports teams and for our 101-year-old sports league,” Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman said. “Ex­pand­ing to Seat­tle makes the Na­tional Hockey League more bal­anced, even more whole and even more vi­brant. A team in Seat­tle evens the num­ber of teams in our two con­fer­ences, brings our ge­o­graphic foot­print into greater equi­lib­rium and cre­ates in­stant new ri­val­ries out west, par­tic­u­larly be­tween Seat­tle and Van­cou­ver.”

The an­nounce­ment came a few mo­ments af­ter Seat­tle Mayor Jenny Durkan let the news slip at a watch party in Seat­tle, prompt­ing cheers: “I got a call from a mole in the room and it was a unan­i­mous vote. We’re get­ting hockey.”

The de­ci­sion was widely ex­pected af­ter the Seat­tle Hockey Part­ners group im­pressed the board’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee in Oc­to­ber with a plan that had all the in­gre­di­ents the NHL was look­ing for. Strong own­er­ship led by bil­lion­aire David Bon­der­man and pro­ducer Jerry Bruck­heimer, a down­town arena in a sports-crazed city and a sea­son-ticket drive that drummed up 10,000 or­ders in 12 min­utes all cleared the way for the NHL to add another team less than three years af­ter ap­prov­ing a fran­chise in Las Ve­gas.

Seat­tle Hockey Pres­i­dent and CEO Tod Lei­weke joked that he’d have to throw out some Seat­tle 2020 busi­ness cards be­cause of the pushed-back tim­ing. But all sides agreed 2021 was the best time to start.

“They’ve al­ways felt that we should have a lit­tle more time to build the arena right,” Bruck­heimer said. “We wanted to bring it to 2020-21 be­cause we want to get go­ing right away, but it’s not fair to the fans or to the play­ers to not have a 100 per cent fin­ished arena when we start.”

The own­ers will pay a $650 mil­lion ex­pan­sion fee, up from the $500 mil­lion the Ve­gas Golden Knights paid to join the league just two years ago. Lei­weke said arena ren­o­va­tions will cost $800 mil­lion and the ad­di­tion of a state-of-theart prac­tice fa­cil­ity makes it a to­tal in­vest­ment of over $1.5 bil­lion.

“(That’s) a few bits of change which aren’t around any­more,” Bon­der­man said of the spend­ing. “Seat­tle is one of my favourite cities and it’s a plea­sure to be here. If it was some­place else, I wouldn’t have done it.”

The NHL will also realign its two di­vi­sions in the West for the 2021-22 sea­son: Seat­tle will play the Pa­cific, home to its clos­est ge­o­graphic ri­vals like Van­cou­ver, Cal­gary and San Jose, and the Ari­zona Coy­otes will move to the Cen­tral Divi­sion.

“It was at the end of the day the sim­plest, most log­i­cal and least dis­rup­tive option we had avail­able to us and I think it’ll work well for the Coy­otes,” Deputy Com­mis­sioner Bill Daly said.

The re­mark­able de­but by Ve­gas in 2017, which in­cluded a run to the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal, gave the league more con­fi­dence about mov­ing for­ward so quickly.

Seat­tle will ben­e­fit from the same ex­pan­sion draft rules Ve­gas had. Its front of­fice is ex­pected to be led by Dave Tip­pett, a for­mer coach who would lead the search for the club’s first gen­eral man­ager and staff. Tip­pett signed on to the pro­ject be­cause of a con­nec­tion to Lei­weke, a ma­jor force in de­liv­er­ing an NHL team to Seat­tle.

Lei­weke got his start in hockey with the Min­nesota Wild. He also worked in Van­cou­ver and most re­cently helped build Tampa Bay into a pow­er­house in the East­ern Con­fer­ence. Lei­weke left the Light­ning in 2015 to be­come the COO of the NFL and didn’t have any in­ter­est in leav­ing the league of­fice un­til the pro­ject in Seat­tle be­gan to gain trac­tion.

Lei­weke’s job will be to cap­i­tal­ize on a mar­ket whose de­mo­graph­ics have changed sig­nif­i­cantly since he left the NFL’s Sea­hawks in 2010 af­ter be­ing largely re­spon­si­ble for the team hir­ing coach Pete Car­roll. Seat­tle is the largest mar­ket in the coun­try with­out a win­ter pro sports fran­chise and has seen an in­flux of wealth in re­cent years. Even when he was run­ning the Sea­hawks, Lei­weke be­lieved Seat­tle was ripe for the NHL and the re­sponse to the sea­son-ticket drive only strength­ened that be­lief.

“I woke up to­day think­ing about the fans,” Lei­weke said. “What did they feel on March 1 when they put down de­posits with­out know­ing any­thing? No team name, an own­er­ship group they didn’t know very well, a build­ing plan that was back then some­what de­fined but fairly vague. To­day is a great day for the fans and we owe them so much. That’s why to­day hap­pened.”

The NHL’s launch in Seat­tle will show how starved fans are for another team. Bas­ket­ball is em­bed­ded in the DNA of the re­gion thanks to 41 years of the Su­perSon­ics and a lengthy his­tory of pro­duc­ing NBA tal­ent. When the rain of the fall and win­ter drive young ath­letes in­side, they grab a bas­ket­ball and head for the near­est gym to play pickup games. Bas­ket­ball courts and cof­fee shops seem to be on ev­ery cor­ner, but ice rinks are scarce.

A lot about Seat­tle is dif­fer­ent from 2008, when the Son­ics moved to Ok­la­homa City. The sky­line is filled with con­struc­tion cranes. Ama­zon has taken over an en­tire sec­tion of the city, joined nearby by satel­lite of­fices of Google and Face­book. The amount of wealth now in the Seat­tle mar­ket is part of the rea­son Tim Lei­weke, Tod’s older brother and the CEO of event fa­cil­i­ties gi­ant Oak View Group, has reg­u­larly calls the city one of the most en­tic­ing ex­pan­sion op­por­tu­ni­ties in pro sports his­tory.

STEPHEN B. MOR­TON/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman, sec­ond from left, holds a jersey af­ter the NHL Board of Gover­nors an­nounced Seat­tle as the league’s 32nd fran­chise, Tues­day, in Sea Is­land Ga. Join­ing Bettman, from left to right, is Jerry Bruck­heimer, David Bon­der­man, David Wright, Tod Lei­weke and Wash­ing­ton Wild youth hockey player Jaina Goscin­ski.

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