Before he steered the Tampa Bay Lightning as its chief executive officer, before he worked directly under commissioner Roger Goodell at NFL headquarters, Tod Leiweke was a plodding right winger playing adult rec hockey in Seattle. (He also helped run the Seahawks and Sounders, but that is beside the current point.) “When you’re slow, the last thing you’re going to do is put me on defense,” Leiweke says. “I’ve got to get back out there and get going again.”
Now he can. On Wednesday afternoon, two days after leaving his job as NFL COO in New York and hours before the Stanley Cup playoffs began, Leiweke was announced as CEO and president of Seattle Hockey Partners, the would-be franchise currently pursuing an NHL expansion bid. Eight years since he bolted for Tampa, Leiweke has already cruised back into the local lifestyle, renting a houseboat in Portage Bay that should provide a relaxing respite from whatever chaos may come. Like, you know, overseeing the creation of a pro hockey team from scratch.
That process is rapidly hurtling toward its final destination. Last month’s season ticket deposit drive drew so much interest that a waitlist was needed on the third day. Owners Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman are optimistic the NHL’s board of governors will approve their application in June, paving the way for an inaugural season in 2021-22. Of course, that projected puck drop also hinges on the completion of sweeping renovations to Key Arena, a project managed by the Oak View Group and Tod’s older brother, Tim.
SI.com spoke with Tim and Tod Leiweke—every single one of their immediate family members also have names that start with T, in case you were wondering—about bringing hockey to Seattle, reacting to the gaudy ticket sales, and tasks for the immediate future. Though the younger Leiweke has already checked one box off there.
“I just signed up for the adult league today,” Tod says. “We start play this summer. And I’ve got to shed about 10 pounds or I’m going to be relegated to the fourth line and I’m not going to see much ice time.”
SI: Tim, had you been keeping Tod in the loop with the hockey team stuff, brother to brother?
TIM LEIWEKE: Yes, yes. Look, this was his idea. He was absolutely smack right about this concept and this marketplace. He’s one of the first people I called when we sold 12,000 deposits in 10 minutes. He’s been in lockstep with the vision and I’ve kept him appraised of everything we’re doing. At the end of the day, the team needs a leader and he’s the leader of the team. My company will focus on getting the building opening and operating.
SI: What’d you say to each other on the call?
TIM LEIWEKE: If I’m not mistaken, he complained about his priority number. And by the way, I told him it didn’t do him any good. I told him, stand in line. We’ll get to you.
TOD LEIWEKE: I’m buried. I’m not at the top of the priority list and it’s a terrific thing. I’m going to live the life of the fan here as well. The essence of the franchise is the support we’ve had already. If you listen and you engage, you can’t go wrong. These fans are so fantastic and they will tell us what to do to be successful, and all we have to do is be brilliant listeners.
SI: Tod, by the time the ticket drive goes up, were you already in the fold?
TOD LEIWEKE: What started the conversation was me cheering on Tim, but I had an important job with a lot of responsibilities, so one of the things I said was I have a season here, and we didn’t really get into deep engagement until post-Super Bowl. And as much as there is here, and it’s so exciting, at times it was a hard decision. I really liked a lot of what I did at the NFL, and Roger Goodell is someone I have deep respect for. I had known him very, very well, and I’ve had a couple amazing moments with him in my career, things I’ll never forget.
I happened to be sitting in his hotel room when I was notified by an email that he had just been elected commissioner. And I got up and said, I have to go, the meeting is over, and I did not betray what had happened. That was this great moment of NFL history. I said, the meeting’s over. He knew someone had been elected. I gave him a hug and left. Dan Rooney came up to his room 30 minutes later and knocked on his door.
Then Roger and I climbed Mount Rainier here. This is the largest United Way in America. We climbed and planted the United Way flag and the 12th Man flag. I would say he was really pissed at me for about 18 hours, then once he got to the summit, he was really happy and his feet hurt at the end, but it was this phenomenal experience. I loved my three seasons at the NFL. Leaving was not anything I’d been thinking about, but this was such a fantastic opportunity here and I’m really excited.
SI: Tim, what did you mean that this was all Tod’s idea?
TIM LEIWEKE: He’s the one who came to me and said pay attention to Seattle, and he was right. They’re still wounded from losing their team 10 years ago, and the efforts that have been made to date ultimately, for whatever reason, hadn’t worked out. We were fortunate enough to win the bid on Key, to find David Bonderman, to get the support we got from the community on the deposit and find a league that believes in Seattle as much as we do … these were all things he knew, and he quite frankly was the only one who probably saw that opportunity.
I always say, in life, sometimes it’s about great ideas, but many times it’s about being a good thief. I took his advice. He was correct. Then I reminded him, he started this, he should come finish this.
SI: How long ago was that?
TIM LEIWEKE: He gave me the idea about a year ago, but the conversations about him coming to finish were this year.
SI: What were you both doing the day ticket sales go up and through the roof?
TIM LEIWEKE: I was in Seattle with David and Jerry Bruckheimer. We were doing a series of interviews. The minute we put them on sale, Jerry and I were headed back to the office. The reports were in and out, so I go, “We did what? No. Can’t be that.” That’s a U2-Garth Brooks concert.
We walked into the office and sure enough we’d done those 12,000 deposits and had lots of people in the queue. Then we ended the first day at 24,000, ended the second day at 33,000. So we created the waiting list and added another 6,500 names and probably another 15,000 tickets. I was caught up and lucky enough to be with our staff.
TOD LEIWEKE: I was trying to stay focused on my day job, but Tim sent me periodic updates. More than anything I was happy for him and David. In retrospect, it looks like, ah, no-brainer. No. Lots of conviction and courage.
SI: What are your immediate tasks in the next couple months?
TOD LEIWEKE: We just need to listen to the community, our depositors, our season ticket members. We need to understand what they think, and understand the reasons why so many showed up and were so emphatic. I think the most important part of any team is really reflecting the values and views of your fans. Measured research, but also listening to what people are saying …
TIM LEIWEKE [interrupting]: I apologize, guys. You’re going to lose me. My job is to get the arena built on time and on budget. Simple. I’ll duck off and let you finish.
TOD LEIWEKE: Tim, I’ll see you at dinner.
Tim hangs up
SI: Are you still on track to get the franchise awarded in June?
TOD LEIWEKE: I think the league is excited. June is the next board meeting. Much of this can get done then, and if not, September. It’s right on track. The league is exacting in this. This is a big moment to expand to 32 teams. You have to have your house in order, but I think we’re really tracking on that.
SI: Beyond the season ticket deposit, is there anything else you have to prove to the league?
TOD LEIWEKE: Gary wants to make sure there’s great ownership, the right fan base and the right venue, but I also think they want to make sure there’s the right management in place. I’ve got a good history with the NHL that I’m proud of. I was president of the Minnesota Wild when we started, then we turned around the Lightning. I don’t want to put words in the commissioner’s mouth, but I think he feels very good about what’s going on here. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of work. There will be twists and turns, but it sure feels like the makings of something special.
SI: Do you have a timetable for hiring a GM?
TOD LEIWEKE: We’re going to take our time. We want to hear from the fans. I’m trying to establish a DNA for our franchise. We want to take the fans with us on the journey. We really want them to feel like they’re a part of it and feel like they’re emotional stakeholders. I think the Sounders did that really well. And the fans showed up. It was really a beautiful thing.
SI: Got a favorite potential name?
TOD LEIWEKE: I don’t have a strong opinion. That’s a really big decision. That won’t be pick-a-name-out-of-a-hat. That’ll be scientific research, really understanding the market, and some gut intuition. That’s an outcome of a whole bunch of work you’ll do in advance. A name will be a symbol of a whole bunch of things that should be embodied in the DNA of a franchise. That’ll be fun, but a ways off.
SI: Last one, what’s your first item of business?
TOD LEIWEKE: True to form, I’m going to make calls to some people who’ve made deposits and thank them, and I want to hear them out. I want to tune into the fans’ passion. Because at the end of the day, that’ll be the catalyst to our success. I can’t wait.