Underneath the Space Needle, the stars are aligning for an NHL team to land in Seattle. The expansion application has been submitted, along with its accompanying $10 million deposit. The ownership group has marshalled: sports executive Tim Leiweke, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and businessman David Bonderman. A season ticket drive will launch Thursday, geared toward proving local interest like Las Vegas did three years ago. And if everything goes according to plan, a vote by the NHL Board of Governors at their June meeting will formally welcome a 32nd franchise, set to debut at a renovated KeyArena for the 2020-21 season.
“That is an aggressive but potentially doable timeframe,” Bonderman says. “All systems are set to go here.”
Speaking with SI.com this week, Bonderman and Bruckheimer were nearing the end of a long road toward NHL ownership. The longtime friends almost bought the Pittsburgh Penguins—“at a much lower price” than the $650 million fee set for Seattle, says Bruckheimer—until some bouncing ping-pong balls put Sidney Crosby in black and gold. According to Bonderman, they also reached an understanding with commissioner Gary Bettman “as to a potential franchise, where it would’ve been, and what the price would’ve been,” until the economy crashed in 2008.
While Bonderman’s fandom for the sport sparked around then, Bruckheimer grew up attending Red Wings games at the old Olympia. He still skates today, a 74-year-old playing shinny with local kids on a farm in Kentucky, where he built a three-on-three rink that looks like a barn. Hockey is a fun escape, but Bruckheimer spends most days in Hollywood. It was there that he met Leiweke, the former AEG president and CEO of the L.A. Kings, who now runs the stadium financing company Oak View Group.
"I think Seattle was always in the back of my mind as a great city, great sports fans, but the problem was there wasn’t an arena that the NHL would embrace, or the NBA," Bruckheimer says.
“Tim had the vision and the ability to get through the process dealing with the arena issues," Bonderman says. "Fortuitously, it all came together.”
Minor hurdles remain concerning KeyArena—finalized architectural drawings, for instance, and an updated environmental impact statement—but OVG hopes to start interior demolition this October. (Come on back, Sonics. There will be plenty of room.) The ownership trio recently returned from touring stadiums in Detroit, Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and the San Francisco area, hunting for design ideas. Ten years have passed since the NBA team bolted and left Seattle as the country’s largest market without major league sports in the winter. “They still have wounds from the process,” Leiweke says. “So we want to make sure we create a home.”
Optimism is already running high among the owners, even before the upcoming morale boost of the season ticket drive. Two dozen temporary employees form the sales force, along with another dozen borrowed from OVG. The NHL hasn’t set any target number, “but we’d like to do better than what they did in Vegas,” says Bonderman. That campaign reached 5,000 deposits in two days and maxed out at 10,000 in a month and a half; Golden Knights owner Bill Foley has spoken several times with the Seattle owners and shared his experiences selling to the market.
The Seattle owners play coy when asked for specific goals—"to do it right," Leiweke quips—but expect to surpass Las Vegas's numbers faster; unlike the Golden Knights, who only accepted credit cards linked to local addresses, Seattle has already solicited commitments from residents of Alaska and Canada. “We needed to remind everyone how great hockey can be,” Leiweke says, a fact he enjoys emphasizing by noting the 100th anniversary of the Seattle Metropolitans winning the Stanley Cup. “You don’t go out and buy a franchise. You earn a franchise.”
As for what that franchise might be named, Bonderman declined to speculate but confirmed that the ownership group has already pursued trademarks for more than three dozen nicknames as a protective measure. (If Seattle Kraken misses the cut, one assumes Bruckheimer will re-purpose that title for his next summer blockbuster.) “We can promise that we’ll run a process to get everybody to have a chance to put in their favorite name, and then we’ll choose ours,” Bonderman says. “And we can guarantee that most of the people who participate will be angry at the outcome.”
The group laughs over the phone. Those are decisions for future dates. For now, focus on this reality: The NHL is soon headed to Seattle. Thank your hockey stars for that.