NHL expansion

NHL Seattle

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

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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.

Bettman: Seattle will host NHL draft, All-Star weekend

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SEATTLE — On his first trip to Seattle since the city was granted the NHL’s 32nd franchise, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced a couple more rewards for the future franchise’s investment.

Bettman said the league has promised Seattle it will host All-Star weekend within its first seven seasons, with the team slated to begin play in 2021-22. Bettman also says Seattle will host the NHL draft, and that event will likely be awarded before the All-Star Game arrives.

”It doesn’t mean we are going to wait seven years,” Bettman said. ”We’re going to be bringing league events here. This is where we want to be.”

Bettman’s unexpected and informal announcement was part of his first visit to Seattle since the franchise was approved by the league’s Board of Governors in early December. Bettman met with members of the ownership group, political leaders in the city, fans who have placed deposits on season tickets and reviewed the status of the massive renovation of the arena at Seattle Center where the team will play.

Seattle’s ownership group has put up over $1.5 billion in expansion fees, upgrades to the building formerly known as KeyArena, and a state-of-the-art practice facility that is expected to open in time to host the first training camp.

”If you talk about in terms of kicking the tires, the tires are in great shape,” Bettman said. ”We couldn’t be more excited. When the board made the decision to come to Seattle, we knew it was the right decision, it would be a great decision and everything that has transpired has not only lived up to expectation but has exceeded our expectations.”

The franchise initially hoped to open for the 2020 season, but it is using the additional year to ensure the arena is operational well ahead of the team’s home opener. It also gives the team more time to put together its hockey staff.

The team still doesn’t have a name or color scheme. Bettman said the league would mostly stay out of the selection process, aside from working with the Seattle franchise in colors, trademarks and other logistical parts of the expansion name. Seattle team president and CEO Tod Leiweke said the goal is to have a name announced by the middle of 2019. The franchise will be taking major input from fans that have put deposits down on season tickets.

Leiweke said the team’s goal is to have a portal launched within the next 60 days for season-ticket depositors to provide feedback and to inform them of the timeframe for decisions and announcements moving forward.

”If I have my way, their fingerprints are going to be all over this franchise. Certainly a team name, but they’re going to help us build this,” Leiweke said.

Some fans are hoping to see a return of the Seattle Metropolitans – a historic name in Seattle, since the Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917. That name might be off the table, though, since the NHL has a division with that name.

Bettman was asked if that name can be ruled out.

”Viscerally, yes,” he said, ”but I never say never to anything.”

Canucks see rivals, partners in new Seattle NHL franchise

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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

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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

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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

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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.