Dotted with skaters out for a mid-afternoon twirl, the public popup ice rink at Seattle Center offered a fitting backdrop when the engine of NHL expansion roared to life again.
On one side of the table sat newly elected mayor Jenny A. Durkan, rocking an old SuperSonics T-shirt beneath her blazer. On the other was Tim Leiweke, the Los Angeles-based sports executive and CEO of Oak View Group, who in no uncertain terms promised two additional major-league franchises for the city. “The mayor looked me in the eye last week and made me swear to her that I would spend every waking day trying to get the NHL here and the NBA back here,” Leiweke said. “And then she literally told me at the end of the meeting, ‘You’re not working hard enough, get going.’”
Here was the first major domino, toppled Wednesday with smiles and signatures. As Durkan and Leiweke together finalized the memorandum of understanding that allows OVG to begin renovating the nearby Key Arena—estimated cost: $600 million, all privately funded—the rest crystallized quickly. Indeed, a little more than a full day passed before NHL governors authorized an expansion application and season-ticket drive from a Seattle ownership group, preliminary conditions not unlike what the Vegas Golden Knights met to become the league’s 31st team. Provided that OVG’s project remains on its projected schedule—and barring any potential labor strife induced by an expiring CBA—the 32nd could arrive in time for the 2020-21 season.
“One hundred years ago, to this year, the Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup for Seattle,” Leiweke said. “Fifty years ago, the NBA came to Seattle with the Sonics. Ten years ago, you had your heart ripped out. We’re going to get you a team.
It’s easy to picture everything on the horizon. The $650 million expansion fee dropped by prospective owners David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer, 30% more than what Vegas paid. The border rivalry between Seattle and Vancouver, festering along stretches of Interstate 5 and Highway 99. The selection of a name: Totems?Sasquatch?Salmon? The rejiggered divisions, the expansion draft, the first puck dropped at the new Key Arena … “I think it’d be a great location,” says San Jose defenseman Brenden Dillon, who spent four years playing for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. “I’m sure if they did it right, they could be a really good team.”
Just don’t ignore Seattle’s deep hockey history, either. Only one NHL player was ever born there—more on his brief career later—but did you know that the Seattle Metropolitans became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup? That’s what Paul Kim learned from a book given to him by an elementary school teacher. As a young South Korean immigrant, he was still learning English at the time but spoke fluent puck. Like his peers, Kim hadn’t heard about the Metropolitans before; certainly not their nine seasons of existence, three Stanley Cup finals appearances and 3-1 triumph over Montreal in 1917, the final season before the NHL was founded. They would soon become his life’s work.
Three years ago, while finishing his econ degree at the University of Washington, Kim began the process of obtaining the Metropolitans’ trademark. (He won the green, red and white S-shaped logo, then reached an out-of-court settlement with the previous owner for the name.) Now he sells Metropolitans gear—T-shirts, sweatshirts, beanies, sandals, socks, toques, shinny hockey sticks, stickers, car decals and the most popular item, a sweatshirt that says STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 1917—at eight sporting stores around the city. Online orders have come from as far as Amsterdam and Japan. Sometimes it costs more to ship the gear than the purchase price.
Initially Kim wanted to license the trademark because Dec. 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitans’ first game. He had big plans. With money earned from another gig sharpening skates at a local ice rink, Kim paid for the Stanley Cup to visit Seattle. He also helped convince the Thunderbirds to hold a retro jersey night celebrating the centennial. At only 27 years old, Kim is nonetheless a sort of steward for the Metropolitans, spreading his enthusiasm about the hometown team. And now that Seattle appears on the verge of getting another one? “Names can be changed, but I think it should be called the Metropolitans,” he says. “Maybe I’m biased because I own the trademark. But I think I can be reasonable.
Tom Bissett knows the history. He experienced most of it. As a kid he cheered for the Seattle Totems, former members of the defunct pro Western Hockey League. Once, when Houston was in town, a youth coach got his team into the visiting locker room. “I remember backing up, stepping on somebody’s foot and I got kicked right in the fanny,” Bissett says. “I turned around and Gordie Howe was smiling at me. But I did get his autograph.”
He remembers the major junior Seattle Breakers, who later turned into the Thunderbirds and last season won their first-ever WHL title. In the old days, the building would blare Rock And Roll Part 2 during intermissions and the Zamboni driver would purposely crash into the boards to rev up fans, spewing snow through the chicken wire because the machine didn’t have a cover. “Not a ton of Seattle kids really went that route,” Bissett says. “It was more Canadians coming down and filling that roster. There wasn’t a ton of Seattle kids, or at least at the time.”
For his part, Bissett came up through the Sno-King amateur program, “this little team that nobody knew anything about” yet stunned more established organizations by winning peewee and bantam nationals within three years. He graduated from Michigan Tech, got drafted by Detroit in the 11th round, and joined the Red Wings around Thanksgiving 1990. On his first shift, a 5-on-3 power play against Chicago, Bissett had a backdoor chance but missed the far post. “I was ready over there, got decent wodo on it, but it just went behind [Blackhawks goalie Ed] Belfour,” he says. “That was my one good chance.” Bissett played twice more, returned to the minors, reappeared for two more games in January, and then enjoyed a long overseas career that stretched into the 2000s.
At the moment, only three NHL players hail from Washington state: Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, Capitals winger T.J. Oshie, and Hurricanes center Derek Ryan. Less than 10,000 players were registered with USA Hockey last season, most of them ages 19 and over. But like the Golden Knights’ arrival has infused energy into Las Vegas’ youth scene, an NHL Seattle franchise hopes for similar results. “In the short term, it’s not automatic,” says Russ Farwell, the Thunderbirds’ GM. “You either have to have a winning team, or market really well and have a long-term plan to build fans. We don’t have that grassroots group that participated and played hockey and is going to spin over and become ticket-buyers. We don’t have that in Seattle.”
Based on experience, Bissett would disagree. “Hockey was always a great atmosphere,” he says. “The fans, I don't know if you want to call them rowdy, but they were really into it. That’s why I think many people have always hoped that some day they’d get hockey back. With the growth of the city and the sports-town feeling there, it’d be a real hit there.”
Outside the visiting locker room at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C., a few hours after the Seattle city council voted to approve the MOU by a 7-1 margin, Dillon reflected on his time with the Thunderbirds. He estimates playing between 40 and 50 games at Key Arena while in juniors, an “amazing venue” despite the clock that hung over one blue line, the other end of the ice that slipped under the seats, and the many, many obstructed views. “Perfect location in downtown Seattle,” Dillon says. “An amazing place to live. Close to Canada, which I’m sure would create a pretty good rivalry with those teams. At the same time, it’s a sports town. You’ve got baseball, football … if the basketball team had stuck around they would’ve had Durant...”
Rub it in, why don’t ya. The Sonics relocated less than a decade ago, so the wounds still feel fresh. Any basketball geek can be reasonably soothed by Sue Bird and the WNBA’s Storm, but bringing back the NBA represents something else entirely. That’s why Durkan dug up her old T-shirt, why she signed the ordinance transmitting the MOU with green pen, “because I believe in the Sonics.” Though how long might that take, whether by relocation or expansion? Leiweke has deep NBA connections—he ran Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Raptors’ parent company, for more than two years—that include commissioner Adam Silver, but nothing appears on the immediate horizon. (At least not as soon as hockey.)
Like many others in Seattle, Dillon can imagine this future. He sees rabid fans “who can’t get enough hockey,” trekking from Canada to catch their favorite teams on back-to-backs, provided of course that locals haven’t already gobbled up all the tickets. He thinks it’d be awesome to visit on a road trip and take a bus between cities, or maybe the Amtrak train that winds along the coastline. The Golden Knights received the most favorable expansion draft format ever and currently sit only four points out of first place in the Pacific Division; one assumes Seattle would receive a similar deal, if not better given the extra $150 million in expansion fees.
“I don’t see why it can’t succeed,” Dillon says, “for sure.”