As far as not-so-clandestine relationships go, this one has been a worse kept secret than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The NHL has long coveted Seattle as a market and the city has spent the past decade or so in a series of fits and starts, trying to establish a suitable playpen to lure the best league in the world.
All Seattle ever needed was an arena. And it’s absolutely no coincidence that once it got one, or at least the promise of one, the wheels started turning on the NHL’s side of things. Just a couple of days ago, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan signed a memorandum of understanding with the Oak View Group for a $600-million renovation project for the Key Arena. That dovetailed nicely with the December meeting of the NHL board of governors, which finished its dizzying first day by announcing that it has accepted the request of David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer to apply for an expansion franchise for Seattle and that the majority interest in the Carolina Hurricanes is about to change hands.
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman opened the expansion process up three years ago, he could barely contain his disdain when Seattle did not tender a bid because it could not put together an arena deal. But there the NHL was today, basically saying that it will invite only one guest to its next expansion party, which makes it about as sure a thing as an election involving Vladimir Putin. The league not only accepted Seattle’s request to apply, it went as far as to approve a season-ticket drive over the next couple of months, announce that Seattle was the only place being considered and set a price tag of $650 million.
Can you say slam-dunk? It’s beginning to look a lot like Vegas, a franchise that lined the pockets of each owner by the tune of $16.6 million and has been a smash hit in every respect. Based on the fee Seattle will be charged, each team will get $20.97 million, an amount that does not have to be shared with the players.
It’s an interesting time to be chronicling the future of NHL ownership. One of the more interesting, and under scrutinized parts of Bettman’s address to reporters today in Palm Beach was what he said about whether or not Seattle would serve as an expansion team or a landing place for another franchise. “Among the other features we have in the agreement are that if we decide in the 2020-21 season instead of expanding we’d like to use an existing franchise, that’s always an option,” Bettman said. “But that’s not something we’re focused on right now because we don’t anticipate anybody moving right now.”
Anyone who has heard Bettman speak over the years knows to read between the lines. There’s a huge difference between the NHL’s overzealous protection of failing franchises – yeah, we’re talking about you, Arizona – and the subtext to what he said today. There is absolutely no doubt Bettman was sending a message with what he said there. Is that message to the city of Calgary, which is currently in a tug-of-war with the Flames over funding for a new arena? Probably not. It’s more likely a word of warning to the Coyotes, whose lease expires after this season without a permanent home being found.
Nonetheless, this is great news for Seattle. The league would have tread much more slowly if it weren’t interested in getting the Seattle market into the league quickly and balancing the disparity between the teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences. Part of the sale of the Hurricanes to Dallas businessman Thomas Dundon is that he cannot apply for relocation for at least seven years, meaning the Hurricanes aren’t going anywhere for quite some time yet, if ever. Moving a western team to Seattle would not solve the disparity between east and west, but Houston is always an option as well.
That, of course, leaves Quebec City waiting for something that may never happen. The city of Hamilton waited 25 years for the NHL to come and it turned out the good people there were actually waiting for Godot. That dream is dead and there is no assumption the league will ever go there. Quebec City will be destined to become the place teams use when they want to leverage their own cities for new arenas and every year that passes becomes another toward the arena being obsolete, the way the once state-of-the-art Copps Coliseum was. The best Quebec City can hope for now, it seems, would be a get-out-of-dodge-quick scenario like the one when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. And even then, it might not be the first choice.
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