Canucks see rivals, partners in new Seattle NHL franchise

3 Comments

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Sitting high above the ice of Rogers Arena, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning is recalling fond memories of his time playing junior hockey for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League and their trips up Interstate 5 to play at the old Mercer Arena against the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Well, how fond he is depends on the perspective.

”They had chicken wire, and the fans were rowdy,” Benning recalled recently. ”The thing with the chicken wire is like you’d line up for a faceoff and they could spit right through the chicken wire.”

While Benning’s memories of playing against Seattle remain – and who could forget chain-link fence in place of glass boards at one end of the rink – he’s also thinking ahead. Looking out at an empty arena a couple of hours before a Canucks faceoff, he can envision fans of Seattle’s new NHL franchise making the trek north on I-5, through the border crossing and into downtown Vancouver to watch their team play the Canucks.

He has no doubt it will be a healthy rivalry and great for the sport in this corner of North America. But the Canucks see the addition of Seattle as more than adding a rival 2 + hours away by car. Seattle will be a critical partner for the future success of both franchises.

The approval of Seattle as the 32nd NHL franchise earlier this week has thrilled hockey fans who for years made their way north to Vancouver to see the game played at its highest level. But there’s an almost equally excited group just north of the 49th parallel who can’t wait for 2021 when the Seattle franchise begins play.

”Vancouver is already a partner. They were the most enthusiastic team in the league about this. They love the idea of this rivalry,” Seattle team President Tod Leiweke said. ”I think for the two cities to connect like this, the two cities are 130 miles away but now they’re going to connect in a whole different way and I think that’s one of the great things that is going to come out of all this is a deep, deep visceral connection between Vancouver and Seattle and we’re going to play some great games.”

Adding Seattle to the league helps the Canucks in various ways, from marketing to travel and interest in the game. The team is already planning ways it can sell Seattle’s addition, even if it’s three years away.

Canucks COO Jeff Stipec noted that even as Vancouver’s on-ice product is improving around a core of young stars and rejuvenating interest in the city after a few down seasons, the fans flocking back to the games are seeking different opportunities. They want special events, like being able to hop on a bus for a road trip to Seattle.

”Our season ticket members, what they’re looking for now are experiences,” said Stipec, who according to Canadian media reports is stepping down from his position but is currently still in his role with the team. The team has not made any announcement about Stipec’s future.

While it would seem the proximity of the two cities might create issues in competing for dollars on the business side, it doesn’t appear that will be the case largely because of the border. The border creates a natural break between the two teams, both in their attempts to gain market share, but also in seeking corporate dollars and the acquisition of talent.

”It’s not that we just have somebody that’s two and a half hours away, we have that international border between us,” Stipec said. ”So that protects us a lot from corporate partnerships, broadcast rights, a whole bunch of things. It’s not like a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia situation. So it’s great that way, that we have our own protected markets in a sense in some of those key areas.”

The Canucks have not actively sought to promote themselves in the Seattle area, though playoff games have been broadcast on Seattle sports radio at times through the years. Still, hockey fans in the area have made the Canucks their team.

Alym Rayani lives just outside Seattle and has gone in with friends on season tickets for the Canucks for about a decade. After spending part of his childhood in Vancouver, Rayani drove back for games after settling in Seattle during the Canucks’ run as one of the Western Conference’s elite teams earlier this decade.

But like others from the Seattle area who regularly attend Canucks games, they’re hockey fans more than Vancouver fans. For Rayani, his loyalty and his dollars will belong to Seattle when it comes on board. He’s No. 16 on the season-ticket deposit list.

”I definitely feel loyalty to the Canucks being born there and having lived there, but I think it will be interesting how I’m going to feel 10 years from now,” Rayani said. ”My kids, they watch the Canucks now, they’re going to be huge Seattle fans I’m sure. … I think over time I will morph to Seattle. I like the idea of being a fan or part of something from day one.”

Team on its way, arena construction now begins in Seattle

5 Comments

By TIM BOOTH (AP Sports Writer)

SEATTLE (AP) — The celebration outside the building Seattle’s NHL team will eventually call home Wednesday came with all the formality of a groundbreaking event with the principals taking turns giving remarks and ceremonially shoveling dirt.

It also came with a new price tag even higher than what was stated a day earlier when Seattle was awarded the NHL’s 32nd franchise.

The cost now is $850 million for the new arena at Seattle Center, according to Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, with construction expected to get started almost immediately. That’s an increase of $200 million from the initial projections for the privately financed project, but the principals involved believe the increased investment is part of making the new building one of the top arenas in the country.

”We never value engineered. That to me was an amazing commitment on behalf of ownership,” Leiweke said. ”We did not do any value ownership on this project. Everything we dreamed about and more we have kept in this building and will write the check.”

The ceremonial event – complete with heavy construction equipment sitting nearby the stage waiting – concluded a whirlwind 36 hours for hockey fans in the region. While it seemed a foregone conclusion, the unanimous vote from the NHL Board of Governors on Tuesday ended a lengthy dance between the league and the city and solved Seattle’s winter sports void created when the SuperSonics departed in 2008.

The franchise will begin with the 2021-22 season after the league and ownership group decided not to risk an already tight arena construction schedule. Rather than having the franchise start for the 2020 season with the potential of delays possibly creating adverse conditions for the new team, the launch was delayed by a year.

That does provide a cushion in the construction timeline, but it’s not a complete year. Leiweke noted the start of the hockey franchise will be pushed back a year to October 2021, the extra time on getting the arena finished is only a few months. The goal is to have the building open by March or April of 2021 so that the WNBA Seattle Storm can play the 2021 season in the building and other events can be scheduled to start recouping the investment on the project.

Tod Lewieke, the CEO and president of NHL Seattle, said the additional time should allow the team to have its three-rink practice facility completed in time for the team’s first training camp in 2021. The team also intends to have its expansion draft in the new arena in the summer of 2021.

And the extended time frame should reduce some of the construction disruptions in a neighborhood that is dense with condos and apartments.

”We’ve always wanted to build in a very responsible way so we’re going got have a little more time to do that,” Tod Leiweke said.

By the time the entirety of all the projects and investments in the franchise is realized with the team’s first game – arena, expansion fee, practice facility and other costs – bringing the franchise to Seattle could end up running in the neighborhood of $2 billion.

”This marketplace is brilliant,” Tim Leiweke said. ”This marketplace is the fastest growing marketplace in North America. So it demands brilliance and we’re going to answer it so we make sure we don’t sit here five years after it opens and say ‘we could have done better.’ We’re going to be great day one and that’s what Seattle deserves.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Seattle lands expansion franchise as NHL adds 32nd team

23 Comments

The National Hockey League’s 32nd franchise will be in Seattle after the league’s Board of Governors voted on Tuesday to approve the expansion application submitted by Seattle Hockey Partners, fronted by billionaire David Bonderman, Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer and CEO Tod Leiweke.

The vote needed 75 percent approval — 24 votes — to pass. It passed unanimously according to Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“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. “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.”

It was Dec. 2017 when the NHL invited the Seattle group to apply for an expansion franchise, a very costly one. The 32nd team will pay $650M, which is an increase from the $500M that the Vegas Golden Knights needed to fork over.

A ticket drive was held in March and “shell-shocked” the ownership group when their goal of 10,000 season tickets sold was surpassed in the opening 12 minutes. By the end of the first hour over 25,000 had been purchased.

Where and when will they play?

On Wednesday, an $800M renovation of Key Arena will begin, per Leiweke. They are targeting a spring 2021 completion date. The building will hold 17,400 for hockey and there is hope that the NBA will make a return someday.

With the potential for another NHL lockout and just to be safe in case of any construction delays, the Seattle team will drop the puck for the 2021-22 season.

“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.”

The ownership group is also planning to build a practice facility which will feature three ice sheets.

Aligning the divisions

When Seattle does enter the league, they will play out of the Pacific Division and the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division (here come the “Coyotes to Houston” rumors) so all four divisions will feature eight teams. The two conferences will also be balanced with 16 teams. Bettman said that the Coyotes have drawn better against Central Division teams than Pacific Division teams, which played a part in the realignment.

“It was at the end of the day the simplest, most logical and least disruptive option we had available to us and I think it’ll work well for the Coyotes,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

What does this means for Vegas?

Seattle’s addition will mean two things for the Golden Knights. First, they won’t get a cut of the $650M expansion fee, which will mean approximately $21M will go to the other 30 NHL clubs once the 32nd team enters the league. Vegas also will not have to take part in the June 2021 expansion draft.

The Seattle expansion draft will feature the same rules that the Golden Knights had to work with, an assurance the league gave them early in this process.

Who’s running the show?

Former NHL head coach Dave Tippett was hired as senior advisor in June and has no interest in getting back behind the bench. He told Sports Illustrated last week that he won’t start looking at potential general managers until “late spring.”

What’s in a name?

The Seattle Times held a contest allowing readers to vote on a potential name for the expansion franchise. Over 146,000 votes were cast and Sockeyes beat out Totems. There are plenty of possibilities and SHP vice-chairman David Wright told SI that “certainly in the spring” a name could be determined. The Metropolitans played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association from 1915 to 1924 and won the Stanley Cup in 1917.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Seattle NHL expansion group names Tod Leiweke team president

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
4 Comments

SEATTLE (AP) — During his first stint in Seattle, Tod Leiweke helped develop the Seattle Seahawks into a benchmark franchise.

He’s returning to the Northwest this time with a chance to build a franchise from scratch – pending NHL approval.

Leiweke was introduced Wednesday as the CEO and president of the prospective NHL expansion franchise seeking to call Seattle home beginning with the 2020 season. The announcement has been expected since Leiweke announced he was stepping down from his role with the NFL earlier this year. But it was another step forward for the expansion bid.

”It’s kind of fun to start from scratch because you can build a culture the way you would want a culture to be built with likeminded people who want to serve, who love the game of hockey. In this, it is a grand opportunity,” Leiweke said.

The prospective majority owner of the franchise, David Bonderman, said he believed there could be a possible conditional announcement about the franchise from the NHL in June and a potential formal announcement in September coinciding with upcoming NHL Board of Governors meetings.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”We hope there is not any doubt about it and it’s certainly not just a formality. However, there is a process with the NHL and we expect to play through that process,” Bonderman said.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking before the playoff opener in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, wasn’t as optimistic, saying there is no set timeline for a decision on Seattle’s expansion bid.

”We don’t have a timetable,” Bettman said. ”That would be nothing more than speculation. I would be surprised.”

While announcing the president and CEO for a team that doesn’t exist yet might seem a bit presumptuous, Leiweke brings the kind of clout that will only strengthen a bid that almost appears to be a foregone conclusion.

Oak View Group, a partner in the franchise and the group responsible for renovating KeyArena, is expected to begin construction on the building later this fall and have the remodel done for the 2020 season. The season-ticket drive that started on March 1 was a rousing success and was capped at 33,000 deposits.

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 real traction.

”The fact is I found the NFL to be a pretty amazing and fascinating place to work and I was starting to get quite comfortable in my role there so I wasn’t looking,” Leiweke said. ”But I think the stars aligned and my son’s advice was, ‘Dad, how can you not do this?’ Today, I think he’s right.”

Leiweke’s job will be to capitalize on a market whose demographics have changed significantly since he left the Seahawks in 2010 after being largely responsible for the team hiring head 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.

”It really is a great fit. I always thought this could be a great hockey market and it proved it. So far, so good,” Leiweke said. ”Now it’s on us because I think people are going to show up opening day ready to believe and what are we going to put out there? Does it all connect?”

Leiweke’s hiring also reunites him with his brother, Tim, the CEO of Oak View Group, which created the privately funded deal to finally solve Seattle’s arena issue.

”I’m so in awe of what we did here,” Tod Leiweke said. ”This has been a challenging issue and my brother came in here and figured it out.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

‘Shell-shocked’: Seattle NHL ticket-drive success makes big impression

Oak View Group
24 Comments

The original goal of the Oak View Group was to hit 10,000 season ticket deposits sold as they started the process towards getting an NHL expansion franchise in Seattle by the 2020-21 season. The reaction from the fans was overwhelming, with 10,000 being sold in the first 12 minutes after the season-ticket drive opened on Thursday and 25,000 claimed in the first hour.

“Shell-shocked is best way to put it,” OVG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke told TSN. “Impressive,” was the one-word email response from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly to Seattle’s KING5.

[NHL Seattle season-ticket drive reaches 25K sold in one hour]

The drive, which saw fans put deposits down of $500 for general season tickets or $1,000 for lower-level center ice seats, will likely end sometime on Friday, as the number has reached nearly 29,000. KeyArena, which is set to underdo a $660 million renovation, holds 17,500 for hockey, so some who make a deposit will be put on a priority waitlist for full or partial tickets. OVG expects to contact fans by May about specific seat locations and pricing.

“I think the NHL is surprised, very pleasantly surprised,” Leiweke said via the Seattle Times. “And so I think they’re very happy. We still have work to do. But I think it sends a great message to the league and it’s what we’ve been telling them about Seattle. So, I think this is a great day for the league.”

Leiweke and his partners, billionaire David Bonderman and Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, submitted a $10 million application for an expansion in February and will have to pony up another $650 million should the NHL approve a 32nd franchise, which could happen during June’s Board of Governor’s meeting.

“By June, Gary Bettman will look at us and say, ‘hey that’s a great market, we should be there,'” Bruckheimer said earlier this week.

Judging by Seattle’s immediate response to the chance of major league hockey returning to the city, it’s time to start working on your 2020 expansion mock drafts. There’s now no doubt that a 32nd franchise is coming.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.