- Craig Custance
When news broke last week that the Seattle City Council supported a deal to build a $490 million arena in Seattle south of Safeco Field, the focus was on the potential return of the NBA and the lost Sonics. Chris Hansen, the main investor in Seattle's new arena, is a lifelong Sonics fan and the deal hinges on his ability to lure an NBA franchise to the city.
But Seattle city councilperson Mike O'Brien noticed something recently as the arena deal was being finalized -- a greater number of people than he expected are more excited about the prospect of an NHL team than an NBA team.
"I'm surprised to learn how many people in Seattle, when I've talked to them over the last few months, say 'I couldn't care less about the NBA, it would be great to get an NHL team in here,'" O'Brien said this week over the phone. "Seattle is growing and a lot of people from the Midwest and Northeast grew up playing hockey in school and on frozen lakes."
Seattle is a city that has long intrigued the NHL as a possible franchise destination. It's a top 15 U.S. television market. There's a built-in rivalry just waiting to be created with the Vancouver Canucks. There's even hockey history there; in 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans beat Montreal to win the Stanley Cup.
"In a city like Seattle, we don't have many titles. We cherish them all," O'Brien joked.
The problem in securing an NHL franchise was the city's lack of an adequate arena. There was nowhere to put an NHL team.
Hansen is close to solving that problem.
King County is reviewing the amended proposal signed off on by members of the Seattle City Council and should know on Thursday whether or not they're ready to move forward. A final city council vote could then happen as early as Monday -- and there don't appear to be any hurdles.
"There's no reason to think it won't pass," O'Brien said. "It may be 9-0."
Hansen's focus is on bringing the NBA to Seattle and he won't proceed with arena construction until he has a franchise secured. There also is a year-long environmental review that needs to be done on the land where the arena will be built. The fast timeline would have the proposed new arena open for business in the fall of 2015. But there are key components of this deal that make it highly likely the NHL will be a part of Seattle's near future.
According to O'Brien, Key Arena (where the Sonics played) would be upgraded to host NBA games while the new arena is being built. That upgrade would include making it suitable for hockey. He also said the arena deal is structured so that it must accommodate both professional basketball and hockey. And there's a significant payoff for Hansen if he can lure an NHL owner and franchise.
"In the arrangement we have with Mr. Hansen, there are two paths the financing can go down," O'Brien said. "In a scenario where they only have an NBA team, we would buy the land and the new arena for $120 million. In a scenario where they have an NBA and NHL team, we would buy the land and arena for $200 million. The amount of debt we're willing to put in the arrangement varies on the amount of teams."
That's 80 million reasons to lure an NHL franchise.
There's financial motivation -- now Hansen just needs to find an NHL owner and team. That's where Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin could end up being a significant player in the future of hockey in Seattle. Levin is a highly successful Chicago businessman with holdings in companies that vary from tobacco processing to medical leasing to movie distribution.
He wants in on the NHL and sees Seattle as an attractive way to get there -- but maybe not the way most anticipate. With the move of the Thrashers to Winnipeg last year and the uncertainty of Phoenix's NHL franchise, moving a franchise would seem to make sense. But he's done the research and that's not his conclusion.
"I can tell you there are not teams for sale that are available to move," Levin told ESPN the Magazine on Wednesday.
Not the Coyotes? Or maybe one day the Islanders?
"My understanding is that the Phoenix deal, [Greg Jamison] has come up with the money," Levin said. "The answer to the Islanders moving is never. They're not moving out of that market. No chance that's going to happen."
Instead, Levin's plan centers on expansion. And he's optimistic it won't be long after the CBA is settled that the NHL will turn to expansion as the next phase in growing the league.
"I would think three years," he said.
The NHL's realignment plan, which was agreed upon during last December's board of governors meeting, certainly made it easy to plug in two more franchises. Levin thinks Seattle would be considered one of the front-runners to land a new team.
"There's Quebec and Las Vegas that are also in there," he said.
Like many potential NHL owners, he's watching the current CBA negotiations closely. While the hockey world is sweating the possibility of another prolonged lockout, Levin has a rooting interest in a favorable result for Gary Bettman and the NHL's 29 owners. He doesn't see the current negotiating battle as a negative.
"It makes me want to [own an NHL team] more," he said. "The league is going to have a better labor agreement when it's finished."
Levin said he's spoken with Hansen in the past but not recently. And there are other potential ownership groups in Seattle that offer competition. But it's looking more and more like an NHL team landing in Seattle within five years is a very real possibility.
Right now, there's cautious optimism.
"The market seems to change and the ownership dynamics change moment to moment," said Seattle City Council president Sally Clark. "We're certainly hoping that somebody will step forward and want to bring hockey here."
Craig Custance reports that the NHL -- lured by financial incentives, fan interest and the city's sizable media market -- might be setting up shop in the Emerald City through expansion rather than relocation.