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NHL commissioner Bettman says new Seattle hockey team will host draft, all-star game within years

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Seattle team CEO Tod Leiweke in Space Needle talking the expansion team’s start in 2021

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman flanked by NHL Seattle team CEO Tod Leiweke (right) and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly inside the Space Needle talking the expansion team’s start in 2021.
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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman flanked by NHL Seattle team CEO Tod Leiweke (right) and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly inside the Space Needle talking the expansion team’s start in 2021.

The NHL is bringing more than an expansion team to Seattle.

League commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday took the occasion of visiting Seattle and sitting inside the Space Needle, next to what will become the new hockey arena in Seattle Center, to promise the city will host the league’s all-star game plus the draft in the coming years.

The puck drop for Seattle’s still-to-be-named new NHL team will be in the fall of 2021.

“We’ve promised an all-star game to Seattle within seven years of playing. Doesn’t mean we’re going to wait seven years,” Bettman said, sitting next to NHL Seattle chief executive officer Tod Leiweke

“We are going to be bringing league events here. This is where we want to be.”

The draft date that makes sense to be in Seattle to kickoff its arrival in the league is the summer of 2021. That’s when the new team will have its expansion draft to round out its roster four months ahead of its first game. In the past the expansion draft has been separate from the general player draft for all other NHL teams.

‘We are looking at when it would be appropriate to bring the draft here,” Bettman said. “Obviously, we need to have an expansion draft. So we are looking at the possibilities. Nothing has been decided (on a date).”

He did say the draft would come to Seattle before the All-Star game does.

The last time the league expanded, to Las Vegas, the NHL conducted its expansion draft over three days the week before the league’s regular annual draft. The Vegas franchise’s selections in that expansion draft were announced in Las Vegas two days before the general draft, in its city during the NHL’s annual season awards ceremony.

Bettman and Leiweke met with the Seattle team’s local ownership group. They met with Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan. They met with many among the tens of thousands who put down deposits on season tickets for the team’s first season, within minutes of that opportunity becoming available online early last year.

Leiweke, the former president of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, the CEO of the Seahawks from 2007-10 and CEO of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning from 2010-15, also detailed more for Bettman the new Seattle hockey team’s training facility and headquarters.

“The mother of all training centers,” as Leiweke called it. The facility will have three full-sized ice sheets for city- and recreational-league use in addition to the team’s. The main sheet will have a seating capacity of 1,000.

The complex will be at Northgate, part of that mall’s reinvention into a combined transit-living-shopping community along Interstate 5 north of downtown Seattle.

“It’s one thing to tell a commissioner how good things are going to be,” Leiweke said. “It’s another thing to have that commissioner come to town, and kick the tires, and see what we are really talking about.

“And that’s what’s happened today.”

Leiweke is absolutely intent to make the Seattle NHL team an integrated an invested member of the Puget Sound community.

One example of that is the portal he said the team will have up and running in about two months. Season-ticket depositors will be able to suggest and vote on the team name, see details and progress on arena plans, transportation projects for getting to and from its Seattle Center location and more.

“If I have my way their fingerprints will be all over this,” Leiweke said of season-ticket depositors, calling them “the wings” that allowed this team to take off.

Also Wednesday, Leiweke did something not every sports executive would do. He had Bettman join him in meeting with workers and staff at Seattle Center and KeyArena, the people and building the NBA left behind 11 years ago. Leiweke thought that was important, to explain his vision for the team, the arena and the city park to the workers there who have been, as he put it, in limbo and “through a lot” since the Sonics left Seattle Center in 2008.

The longest-serving commissioner in sports sounded wowed by what he saw in Seattle Wednesday.

“You talk about in terms of ‘kicking the tires,’ Bettman said. “The tires are in great shape.

“We couldn’t be more excited. When the (NHL’s) board (of governors) made the decision to come to Seattle (this winter), we knew it was the right decision, that it would be a great decision. And everything that has transpired has not only lived up to expectation but has exceeded our expectations.

“We know as the arena gets built, as the team gets built, as the training center gets built and the connection with the community gets deeper, this is going to be great not just for Seattle but for the NHL, as well.”

Bettman reiterated what the NHL announced on Dec. 4 when its board of governors unanimously approved Seattle to become its 32nd franchise: the Seattle team will get the same expansion rules Vegas got when it had its inaugural draft 19 months ago.

“It was important to us to ensure that every team in our league, including an expansion team, come in with a team that can be competitive,” Bettman said.

“As with Vegas, the existing 30 teams—because Vegas doesn’t participate—the prior 30 teams will be able to protect one goaltender and seven forwards and three defensemen, or one goaltender and eight skaters and players two years (in the league) or less don’t have to be protected.”

Those are the rules Vegas used to have the most wildly successful debut season in league history in 2017-18.

Using deft acquisitions and management from experienced hockey executives, Vegas advanced all the way to last summer’s Stanley Cup finals in its first season.

“What happened, there were other things at play last year in Vegas,” Bettman said.

He was referring chiefly to the killing of 58 people and injuring of more than 850 during a mass shooting into the Route 91 Harvest music festival along the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1, 2017.

That was nine days before Vegas played its inaugural home game in the city.

“There was a lot of energy and drive and emotion that wasn’t typical (last season for Vegas). Although they are playing well this year,” Bettman said.

“Who knows what’s going to happen? There’s a reason we play the games. But this team will have the opportunity, under the rules that were the same for Vegas, to accomplish whatever they are capable of. I have no doubt that the organization, from a hockey standpoint, that is going to be put together will be first-class in terms of development, scouting, training. And they are going to be able to compete.”

Leiweke said nothing to discourage hockey fans in Western Washington from expecting something approaching Vegas-like success in the Seattle team’s expansion season.

“We have great admiration for what they did there (in Vegas),” the former CEO of the Seahawks said. “And it didn’t happen by chance. Commissioner Bettman has talked more than once about the tragedy that happened there about a week and a half before the puck dropped. And I don’t think opening night was what they anticipated. But an amazing thing happened...That team, they owned...

“That’s why I love sports, and why I specifically love hockey. There’s inspiration in this game, and they found it there...

“I watch games every night. And I look and dream that, you know, some of those players are going to be wearing “SEATTLE” across their chests. And it’s a pretty cool thing.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.

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