Bettman has Seattle expansion target in mind after executive committee approval

The Seattle expansion bid took a giant step forward Tuesday, and after rumblings their debut could be delayed, the 32nd team appears back on track for 2020-21.
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One hurdle down, one more to go.

On Tuesday, the eve of the 2018-19 NHL campaign, officials from the NHL and the Board of Governors executive committee met with members of the group supporting Seattle’s bid for an NHL team, including prospective owner David Bonderman and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, and following an hour-long presentation, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman delivered the news most were expecting: Seattle will take its next step towards approval. And if there was any doubt the league was receptive to what Seattle presented, it was all but erased by news of the unanimous decision to recommend expansion and push forward the proposal.

That means attention for those heading up the Seattle expansion bid now turns to the December Board of Governors meeting, where Seattle will present its case to the governors for each of the league’s 31 teams in hopes that it will be given the green light to move forward. The expectations are much the same as they were for Tuesday’s meeting in New York, which is to say Seattle seems to be a shoo-in to garner the 75 percent approval necessary to be green lit for expansion.

Once that approval is given, too, Seattle can begin in earnest the process of getting the building in place for its prospective NHL franchise. While Seattle city council was unanimous in giving Seattle Arena Company’s (ArenaCo) $700-million Key Arena renovation project the go-ahead late last week, demolition and construction cannot actually begin until the league rubber-stamps the expansion franchise. In Seattle’s case, it’s a matter of the sooner, the better, particularly with the timeline for the new franchise to begin play.

If beginning in December 2020, it’s expected that the entire renovation process can be completed by October 2020. That would allow the team to begin play in the 2020-21 campaign, which is, Bettman said, the ideal scenario. “The focus for everybody is 2020,” Bettman said, according to the Seattle Times. “That’s what we’re focused on. There are a variety of factors that could impact that, including the construction timeline. The sooner construction can begin, obviously, the more likely an early start.”

As for meeting the timeline, Tod Leiweke, president and CEO of Seattle Hockey Partners, said it was something that was talked about “extensively” in Tuesday’s meeting. In speaking with Dave Mahler and Dick Fain on Seattle’s 950 KJR, Leiweke said “in a perfect world” the approval from the executive committee and presentation to the entire Board of Governors wouldn’t happen two months apart, but it was laid out to the executive committee how Seattle will go about accomplishing the entire renovation. Beyond that, Leiweke expressed what having the arena in place by the 2020-21 campaign would mean to Seattle.

“A lot of the reason that it’s important to me is our fans,” Leiweke told Mahler and Fain. “Our fans took a leap of faith when there wasn’t a team, when there wasn’t a lot of things, and we want to reward them and we don’t want to wait a year to do that. I think that resonated with the owners.”

The goal of Leiweke and Co., not to mention Bettman’s assertion that the league is targeting the 2020-21 campaign, does, however, fly somewhat in the face of comments made by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly made in early September. According to ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, Daly said that the new franchise was more likely to begin in “the 2021-22 season than the 2020-21 season, so we have some time…We’ve had that discussion on a preliminary basis with the ownership group and I think the ownership group is on board with that timeline.” That no longer appears to be the case, though, with all involved now seemingly hopeful that 2020 is still in play.

Of course, one factor entirely out of Seattle’s control is a potential work stoppage. Though nothing has been determined one way or another, the NHL is heading towards a potential shutdown ahead of the 2020-21 season if either the NHLPA or NHL acts on its right to end the current collective bargaining agreement. However, both parties could instead decide to continue playing under the current CBA terms until the pact expires ahead of the 2022-23 season.

For the time being, though, all involved in the Seattle NHL expansion project have their sights set on the December meeting with the board of governors, where they’ll look to wow the powers that be one more time on their way to landing the NHL’s 32nd team.

“We’re going to go in with guns blazing,” Leiweke told Mahler and Fain. “And if we told a good story today, we’re going to tell an even better story on Dec. 2.”

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