By Stu Hackel
The first U.S.-based hockey team to win the Stanley Cup was the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917, but there has been no big league hockey in that town since 1924. Lately, there's been some real buzz that the NHL could be headed back there.
Sunday's story in The Seattle Times, that a 44-year-old San Francisco hedge fund manager with roots in Seattle wants to build a new arena in his old hometown, has helped put that city front and center in the discussion -- especially after NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman mentioned Seattle earlier this month at the All-Star Game. Based on that story, and the attention it received in the hockey blogosphere (here , for example), the possibility of Seattle becoming an NHL city turned into a Monday wire service story, which in turn morphed into stories and radio programs about how the Coyotes could be destined to move there along with the NBA's original gypsy franchise, the Sacramento Kings (née, the Kansas City Kings, Cincinnati Royals and Rochester Royals).
How did this happen? The Seattle Times wrote that Bettman "has expressed a strong interest in placing a team in Seattle," which is actually a stronger statement than what Bettman actually said when he listed Seattle along with Quebec, Kansas City and Las Vegas among the cities that had expressed an interest in having a team. “I don’t have a master list in my office and they haven’t been ranked," he said (quoted by Chris Stevenson of The Ottawa Sun). "We won’t look at alternatives until we conclude that we might have to leave somewhere else. That’s the way it works. We don’t compare two cities and say we’d rather be here, so we’re going to leave. If we’re done in a place, then we’ll look at the alternatives.”
But The Seattle Times preferred to hang its story on another part of Bettman's remarks when he said, "There are a lot of people who think Seattle would be a great place to have a team. The Pacific Northwest, the natural rivalry with Vancouver, another team in the Pacific time zone … but there's no building."
Now that there's talk of a building, Seattle is again buzz-worthy. But buzz does not equal an arena. Yes, Seattle does have a potential temporary building, the KeyArena, but that would supposedly seat something like 10,000 for an NHL game when it's configured for hockey. That only guarantees a big bucket of red ink for whoever owns the club it as long as it plays there. Yes, there are some promising aspects to Seattle (as Jason Brough of NBC Sports Pro Hockey Talk notes). The truth is, however, there's never really been a lot of local enthusiasm for an NHL team. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer readers' poll in January attracted all of 2,631 respondents, of whom 1,725 replied that they would give an NHL team unqualified support. No, that poll is not sophisticated market research, but would you want to locate a franchise there based on that meager sampling?
If anyone has approached the NHL about buying the Coyotes from the league and moving them to Seattle to lose money for at least two years in the hope that a big arena gets built, it must be a closely guarded secret. Another question is if Seattle's new franchise would own its arena or merely be a tenant. There's a substantial difference. But the only reason that the subject of an NHL team has come up in connection with this proposed new arena is because Seattle wants an NBA team back in town. It's pretty clear from the story in The Seattle Times that San Francisco hedge fund guy Christopher Hansen's motivation in approaching the city is mainly about his desire to buy a basketball franchise and build an arena for it south of Safeco Field.
Currently, Kansas City remains the only city with a suitable NHL-ready building. It, too, faces very big questions as to whether there is an appetite for major league hockey in that town and anyone wants to own a franchise there. If the demand were as high as is often alleged, we might be talking about the Kansas City Thrashers (or Scouts or Generals or Comanches or Copperheads or Thunderwasps) today instead of the Winnipeg Jets.
If we've learned anything about locating NHL franchises during the past 15 or so years, it's that they work better in places where people actually want them a lot -- enough to pay the hefty ticket prices and support them even when they play poorly over a lengthy stretch of time.
One of those places is certainly Quebec City. There would be no shortage of buyers for a team, led by Pierre Karl Péladeau and his Quebecor media company that has been part of the consortium to build the new arena there. Unfortunately, it's unclear how long it will be before the grand plans that the city, province and local businesses have for their $400 million building actually results in a shovel being plunged into the earth.
They've given themselves a target date for completion, however: Fall of 2015. Not coincidentally, that's when the New York Islanders will be free to leave Nassau Coliseum -- and that's why fearful Islanders fans are so desperate to see their team move to Brooklyn, despite the fact that it would merely be a tenant at Barclays Center, an arena that is most likely too small to generate adequate revenue.
Before construction actually begins in Quebec, there are court challenges to hear and all manner of building issues, such as the selection of materials. And there are other uncertainties: le Soliel reported in January that the original size of the arena has been slightly scaled back (although it will still seat 18,000) and even with that, another story in the paper reported that a tour of the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh had Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume worried that $400 might not be sufficient. As if that wasn't enough, the paper also reported that half of the dirt that must be excavated at the arena's proposed site seems to have toxic contamination, and that will likely drive up costs.
Even if Quebec's arena project meets its target date, and if the Coyotes were to move there instead of Seattle, the team would have to play somewhere else temporarily. The old Colisee is not only small (slightly over 15,000), it has no luxury boxes and needs improvements to make sure the ice holds up in warmer weather because the building has no air conditioning. Those improvements seem to be in the works, or will be when the QMJHL Remparts's season ends. One supposes if the owners wouldn't mind sustaining losses (which François Gagnon of la Presse estimated between $15 and $20 million a year) until the new arena opens, the Colisee could be a temporary home for the Coyotes.
But even if they didn't mind the red ink, a Quebec group may not get a team until things are clearer about the construction of the new building. "I think Le Colisée is an option, but only if construction has started on the new building. There has to be that commitment," one NHL governor told Gary Lawless of The Winnipeg Free Press in late January.
Regardless, Quebecers are looking at the Coyotes situation as a chance to get the team they covet -- even if it arrives a bit sooner than they would prefer. In le Soliel François Bourque examined other cities -- Seattle, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Southern Ontario -- on the basis of various categories: a legitimate owner, suitable arena, geographical desirability, and whether it is a growing market. The idea was to size up Quebec's competition for an available club even though the NHL has repeatedly told representatives from Quebec and every other interested city that the league is making no guarantees or promises, the Coyotes will have to someplace if ties are cut with Glendale.
Another thing we've learned more recently is how resistant the NHL has become to moving franchises. It wasn't that way early in the Bettman era, but it is now. Even so -- as the Thrashers to Winnipeg move showed -- these things can happen awfully fast. So until matters between Glendale and the league get sorted out, it's best not to print up any new Seattle Metropolitans or new Quebec Nordiques shirts and hats just yet or even predict where the Coyotes will call home next year.
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