The end of a nearly hundred-year drought for top-tier pro hockey in Seattle drew closer Tuesday when the city’s bid for an expansion team in 2020 received a unanimous recommendation from the nine-member National Hockey League executive committee after a 90-minute presentation in New York City led by Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“They realized this isn’t just good for Seattle, it’s good for the NHL,” Durkan told reporters after the pitch concluded, but before the vote. “I think they know Seattle is the place to be. Seattle sells itself — greatest fan base anywhere, in a city growing faster than anywhere in America. and sold out its (season-ticket deposits) faster than anyone thought it would.”
The key, of course, is the Key — Seattle Center’s 56-year-old arena deemed too small for the NHL and NBA. Seattle is the largest market in North America without a winter pro-sports franchise, but it also has no place to house one. Oak View Group of Los Angeles has proposed a remedy using $700 million in private funds to double the Key’s size and minimize event impacts on the surrounding urban village.
Skeptics said it can’t be done. But David Bonderman, the billionaire investment banker who is the majority owner of Seattle Hockey Partners, the group that would pay a $650 million franchise fee to launch in October 2020, was on hand to assure the committee — made up of a subset of representatives from the 31 franchises — that it will happen.
“Seattle is ready for teams,” he said. “The facility will get built in partnership with the city. We’re confident we made a compelling presentation.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters that work still needs to be done.
“It’s never one factor. If you’re going to have a successful expansion application, all of the bases need to be touched,” he told reporters. “The recommendation is to proceed with expansion in Seattle, subject to completing the process thoroughly.
“Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It gives us a geographic balance. It creates a nice geographic rivalry with Vancouver. I know Vancouver’s particularly excited about the possibility.”
The unanimous vote sends the proposal to the 31-member Board of Governors (owners) at its next scheduled meeting Dec. 3-4 at Sea Island, GA., where the green light (or red lamp) is expected. The board has never not taken a recommendation from the committee.
Meantime, OVG is eager to get started because its hyper-aggressive schedule in a complicated project needs every possible day. The arena’s final event is Friday: An NBA exhibition game between the NBA champion Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
Durkan was asked whether demolition can begin before a team is officially granted.
“I’m very confident we’ll get what we need from the NHL to stick to the schedule, so we can get hockey in 2020,” she said. “They know it’s a time-tight schedule. The public’s got to know the risk is on the ownership team.
There’s a lot that has to be done before we put shovels in the ground.”
Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, a big proponent of the Seattle bid, told KING5 that owners were excited about another Northwest team.
“I think it’s going to happen,” he said.
“The presentation was outstanding,’’ Montreal Canadiens chairman Geoff Molson, a member of the executive committee, told The Athletic. “And then obviously it’s a pretty interesting market that’s got lots of head offices. They said it was one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., which is pretty good, too. And they’re building a group of people that are going to oversee this thing that have a lot of experience. I think that’s certainly a great start.’’
Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, also on the executive committee, told The Athletic: “Everything went well, it was a good presentation. They did a great job.’’
The City Council Sept. 24 unanimously approved the OVG proposal and partnership, which included $40 million for transportation mitigation, $10 million for a non-profit agency helping youth and $2.5 million for affordable housing.
In an interview published Tuesday on The Athletic, SHP CEO Tod Leiweke talked about bringing the same level of fan engagement to the hockey franchise that he developed in Seattle during his much-praised tenure as CEO of the Seahawks, as well as the Sounders during their expansion launch.
“This project is entirely built around fans: NHL fans, basketball fans, music fans, family shows,” he said. “I knew the fans, and I kept telling my brother (Tim, CEO of OVG), ‘It’s different there . . . it’s a special, special place,’ and so far the fans haven’t let me down ever here.
“I’ve always had an abiding respect of fans. It’s one thing to buy a ticket, but the most important thing they’re giving you is their faith and their passion, and those are valuable things in this world. Fans make teams. Smart organizations build their organizations around the fans.
“I think I did some really good things in this town and when I came back, people realized I had taken a risk (he left his job as COO of the NFL) because it’s not a done deal. I think people said, ‘Well, if he’s taking a risk, maybe my placing the deposit was well-founded.'”