<
>
Insider

Oilers' Seattle flirtations all about leverage

9/25/2012

In 2008, Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins were celebrating the groundbreaking of the Penguins' new arena. On this day, he came clean about how empty his threats to move the Penguins to Kansas City and Las Vegas truly were.

"We had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way," Lemieux told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

He said trips to Kansas City and Las Vegas were little more than an opportunity to grab a nice dinner out of town and apply pressure on negotiations to receive money for a new arena.

"[Pressure] was felt, and that was the important thing," Lemieux said then. "A lot of things happened throughout the negotiations. Ups and downs. That was just a way for us to put more pressure, and we knew it would work."

As David Shoalts at the Globe and Mail pointed out so eloquently, it's a page from the NHL owner's playbook that is well-used. New Jersey did it. The Islanders did it too.

And now, the Edmonton Oilers are giving it another spin.

Owner Daryl Katz, team president Patrick LaForge and Kevin Lowe all were in Seattle on Monday holding very public meetings about the possibility of relocation to Seattle since the city of Edmonton won't immediately cave to new concessions for the proposed $475 million arena. The Oilers even released a statement saying that the Katz Group has been listening to proposals from a number of potential markets besides Seattle.

But the reality is, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's recent history shows that moving a franchise is rarely the ultimate solution. Edmonton likely isn't going anywhere.

"We continue to believe that an arena deal is achievable, and with a new arena there should be no reason to have any doubts about the future of the Oilers in Edmonton," Bettman said in a statement to ESPN.com Tuesday afternoon.

The easy solution in Phoenix would have been to move the Coyotes years ago rather than losing millions annually while trying to find a local buyer. And yet, the Coyotes are still in the desert.

And yes, the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg last year, but that market was an ideal turnkey solution waiting to pounce on a franchise that had exhausted all local options. The bottom line was there wasn't a single realistic investor willing to spend millions on hockey in Atlanta and the city had no interest in helping out. Can the same be said in Edmonton, a city with a long history of hockey and a talented young roster on the cusp of contention?

"I've dealt with the league for a long time. I can tell you that it was the last resort they moved Atlanta," said Chicago businessman Don Levin last week, who would love to buy an NHL team and anchor it in Seattle.

There are other hurdles before an NHL team can play in Seattle. The Seattle City Council approved Chris Hansen's arena deal in Seattle on Monday, but the shovel won't hit dirt until Hansen secures an NBA team, regardless of how interested the Oilers are in moving to the city. Bringing back the Sonics is Hansen's focus, and the deal approved by the city council on Monday specifies that construction bonds won't be issued until he lands an NBA team.

There also needs to be a yearlong environmental review before any of this gets started, and there's risk in starting that review too soon without an NBA team committed to the city.

"You don't want to do your environmental review too far in advance," said Seattle City Council president Sally Clark. "It will be stale after a few years ... that's time-consuming and expensive."

Seattle is just beginning its path toward attracting an NHL team, and it looks likely that it will happen within five years. It's a great market that has the NHL intrigued.

But Edmonton's lease at Rexall Place expires in 2014, and the soonest a new arena could open in Seattle is fall of 2015. And that's if Hansen secures an NBA team in the next few months.

This is more of a thinly veiled attempt by Katz to gain more leverage with the city of Edmonton. History shows it's a plan that works. Just ask Mario.