John McGrath

NHL, Seattle and now Leiweke. It’s a match that’s made in heaven

Part owners Jerry Bruckheimer, left, and David Bonderman, center, pose with Tod Leiweke and a hockey stick during a news conference naming Leiweke as the president and CEO for a prospective NHL expansion team, Wednesday in Seattle. Leiweke is the brother of Tim Leiweke, the CEO of the group heading the redevelopment of the arena which would serve as a home for a new hockey team. The group is seeking to have a team awarded in time to begin play in 2020.
Part owners Jerry Bruckheimer, left, and David Bonderman, center, pose with Tod Leiweke and a hockey stick during a news conference naming Leiweke as the president and CEO for a prospective NHL expansion team, Wednesday in Seattle. Leiweke is the brother of Tim Leiweke, the CEO of the group heading the redevelopment of the arena which would serve as a home for a new hockey team. The group is seeking to have a team awarded in time to begin play in 2020. AP

The face of Seattle’s imminent NHL franchise was introduced Wednesday, but the team’s first president didn’t require an introduction.

Tod Leiweke once served the Seahawks as the executive who determined a potentially dominant team was asleep at the wheel. Burdened by a roster socked with veterans past their prime, the Hawks played in a first-class downtown stadium that offered every amenity but electricity on the field.

After the Seahawks finished 2009 with a four-game losing streak that assured them of a second consecutive losing season, Leiweke made the difficult – and very awkward – decision to fire head coach Jim Mora on the day he met the media for a wrap-up talk assessing his first year as Seahawks head coach.

Mora was blindsided, and when Leiweke arranged for Pete Carroll to take over the football operation, most fans were either angry or indifferent.

How’d that turn out?

Leiweke departed for Florida, where he rebooted another doddering franchise, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, before accepting a job as CEO of the NFL.

“I found the NFL to be a pretty amazing place to work,” Leiweke said Wednesday. “I was starting to get quite comfortable with my role there, so I wasn’t looking to move. But the stars aligned.

“I love this town. I couldn’t believe it when the Sonics left. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a solution for the arena.”

Plans for a $600 million remodeling of KeyArena are still in the artist’s conception phase, but a solution has been achieved to bring an NHL expansion team to Seattle and, ultimately, an NBA team called the Sonics.

But while basketball is down the road, hockey is around the corner. The league long has craved Seattle as a market, and when 25,000 season-ticket deposits were collected on the day they were made available – 10,000 in the first hour – it was akin to an embossed wedding invitation.

“It’s a perfect set up, to be able to recruit the best,” said Leiweke. “Whether it be the general manager, the head coach, the trainer or ultimately the team, this is going to be a very, very special place to play hockey.

“Our pledge, first and foremost, is to serve and make this community better because we’re here. Our passion will be arranging brilliant events with an exciting guest experience, and our commitment will be to win at everything we do and bring a Stanley Cup – yes – back to Seattle. It happened once, it can happen again.”

Leiweke was referring to the 1917 Metropolitans, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association members recalled as the first U.S. club to win North America’s oldest team sports trophy. Seattle’s hockey history is rich. More important, its future is unlimited.

As president, Leiweke, 58, will have his hands on every aspect of the fledgling organization. The process of converting dreams into reality will begin with the identification of a general manager who’ll select the coach, and I suspect Leiweke already has compiled a short list of GM candidates. The short list will grow into a long list, as there’s no challenge more invigorating than assembling a franchise from the ground level.

In the meantime, Leiweke will endorse a philosophy appealing to those sports fans needing a crash course in Hockey 101.

“The great thing about team sports is that it’s never about one player,” said Leiweke, who apparently hasn’t been following the Cleveland Cavaliers. “We’re going to have four lines deep. We’re going to have depth on our team, and no prima donnas.

“It’s fun to start from scratch, because you build a culture the way you want it built, not a culture to be built on.”

During Leiweke’s tenure with the Seahawks, a culture had been built and it was stagnant. So he shook things up, replacing a head coach whose local roots were established – Mora was a Washington Huskies linebacker and former assistant on Mike Holmgren’s staff – with the controversial USC coach who presided over the Pac-12’s version of the Evil Empire.

It would be an overstatement to credit Leiweke for saving the NFL in Seattle. Paul Allen did that when he bought the team from Ken Behring, whose attempt to relocate the franchise to Southern California ranks among the two or three most boneheaded moves in the history of civilization.

But Leiweke recharged the Hawks with his bold idea that Pete Carroll, twice fired as an NFL head coach, was poised for a triumphant comeback. A gut hunch, perhaps, yet steeped in the wisdom of a sports executive whose resume reflects successes in football, hockey, basketball and soccer.

“I’m not here to make it kinda work,” he said of the Seattle NHL team likely to debut in 2020. “I’m here to make it work.”

The morning sky was gray Wednesday amid an incessant drizzle, and nightfall offered no chance to ponder the mysteries of the universe. But Seattle-area hockey fans could see clearly.

There were stars up there, and they were aligned.

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