Ten years ago the Seattle SuperSonics exited the Pacific Northwest, leaving a winter-time void in the sports-crazy city of Seattle. On Tuesday afternoon in Sea Island, Georgia, that void was filled by the NHL.
The NHL’s 31-member Board of Governors unanimously approved expansion to Seattle, starting in the 2021-22 season. The Seattle franchise doesn’t have a nickname yet, but it will play in the NHL’s Pacific Division. The Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division once the Seattle franchise begins play to balance out the league’s conferences.
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.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out that a Seattle team gives the NHL a footprint in the Pacific Northwest and provides the nearby Vancouver Canucks with a natural rival.
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“Today is an exciting and historic day for our league as we expand to one of North America’s most innovative, beautiful and fastest-growing cities,” Bettman said in a press release.
“We are delighted to add David Bonderman, Tod Leiweke and the entire NHL Seattle group to the National Hockey League family. And we are thrilled that Seattle, a city with a proud hockey history that includes being the home for the first American team ever to win the Stanley Cup, is finally joining the NHL.”
“Today is a historic moment in Seattle sports history,” said Leiweke, CEO of NHL Seattle. “Our fans are at the core of this movement to bring an NHL team to Seattle, and today we celebrate in honor of them.”
Groundbreaking for the renovated Key Arena, the new team’s home, will be on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
The first season is a year later than many had hoped, largely because of concerns that arena renovations would not be done in time for the beginning of the 2020-21 NHL season in October 2020. Leiweke told reporters that he expects the arena to be ready and open in March or April of 2021.
“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 percent finished arena when we start.”
Seattle’s owners will pay a $650 million expansion fee — $150 million more than what the Vegas Golden Knights paid in 2016. Leiweke said arena renovations will cost $800 million and the addition of a state-of-the-art practice facility makes it a total investment of over $1.5 billion.
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 president and CEO Tod 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 called the city “a brilliant marketplace” and one of the most enticing expansion opportunities in pro sports history.
Seattle has become a city of transplants due to the booming local economy. A hockey franchise would provide those newcomers a team to rally around, much like what happened when the Sounders of Major League Soccer arrived in 2009 – the last team added to the city’s sport landscape. The Sonics were the first, joining the NBA in 1967, followed by the arrival of the Seahawks in 1976 and Mariners in 1977 after construction of the Kingdome.
There have been several attempts at solving Seattle’s arena issues and landing either an NHL or NBA team in the years since the Sonics left, but none had the support of the city or the private money attached until now.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.