A few days ago, Dave Tippett was strolling through the streets of suburban Seattle, scouting out potential condo units for rent, when a passing bicyclist dismounted on the sidewalk and marched his way. At first Tippett froze, unable to recognize the man, unsure why anyone would approach him like this altogether.
Extending a hand, the man explained. He remembered when Tippett was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings, just starting out behind an NHL bench around the turn of the century. And now, almost two decades later, the man wanted to thank Tippett for his newest gig: Building an expansion hockey franchise in Seattle.
Oh, and could Tippett tell him what the team will be called?
“The biggest thing is, everyone wants to know the name,” Tippett says, chuckling. “Everyone’s got their opinion on the name. And I don’t know that yet. I’m in the dark.”
That responsibility belongs to prospective majority owners Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman—such are the perks of shelling out $650 million in eventual expansion fees—but Tippett has a hand with pretty much everything else. As the nascent organization’s senior advisor, Tippett is technically the only hockey operations person on a staff of roughly 10 employees, which means he will oversee everything from practice facility construction to locker room layout to the hiring of a general manager next year.
It is a far cry from the relaxing, golf-filled, year-long sabbatical that Tippett took from the NHL after leaving his previous job as head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, which he had occupied for eight years from ‘09 to ‘17. The Seattle city council will vote on legislation related to renovating KeyArena later this month. On Oct. 2, the ownership group will make its formal expansion pitch at the NHL Executive Committee’s meeting in New York City. A vote of the Board of Governors could be called as soon as December, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, with an expected puck drop two or three years down the road.
“Lots of work being done just to get everything in order,” Tippett says. “It’s such a big project.”
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Tippett spoke with SI.com about deciding to join Seattle, learning while sitting out the ‘17-18 season, watching as the Vegas Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final, whether he anticipates returning as a coach and more.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: So where do you fit in with all this? What’s your daily workflow like?
DAVE TIPPETT: Well, I come in and do anything within the building process of the first year here that has anything to do with the hockey department—the hockey spaces within the buildings, I’ve worked with people to get things arranged for a practice facility, working to find a location for an AHL team and then doing some research, too, on what Vegas did and what was the key factors in their success. Then as we get going here we’ll start to dig more into the hockey operations staffing as we get into the spring.
I had a relationship with [Oak View Group CEO and former AEG CEO] Tim Leiweke from Los Angeles. He reached out to me in the spring and wanted to know how things were going. Then went in and met with him and Jerry Bruckheimer and [NHL Seattle president] Tod [Leiweke]. We hit it off, got talking and they basically wanted somebody with a hockey background to come in and help us out with some of these decisions. So it’s been really enjoyable. It’s not the day-to-day grind of hockey right now, but it’s the actual building the foundation of a team.
SI: Take me back to that moment, then, when Tim calls. Had you been monitoring Seattle? Had you thought about your interest if they had called? Or were you just busy golfing?
DT: [laughs] Well, I didn’t want it to come out like that, but yeah, I golfed a lot last year. Actually, I don't know what I was doing. It was an out-of-the-blue phone call, a friend-of-a-friend who had reached out and said he just talked to Tim Leiweke and he was looking for my number. He called and I was driving along. It was an interesting conversation. I got off the call and went, Hmm, that sounds interesting. Then it went on for another couple months after that before I really started digging into it.
SI: Where did you start? What’d you do on your first day?
DT: Just got to know a few people here and there. I’d been doing some work, we’d discussed a few things, areas I was going to focus on early, so I came in and started doing some research about minor hockey in Seattle, touching base with the junior teams, just getting to know the area a lot better.
SI: What’d you learn?
DT: That there’s lots and lots of hockey interest up here, starting with 33,000 deposits with season tickets. Nobody would know it, but there are 140 adult hockey teams in the Seattle area. Great minor hockey programs. They need sheets of ice for it to grow. Talking with a lot of people from different markets, when an NHL team comes to a city, everything blossoms. The sport gets a real boost.
SI: Had you thought at all about getting out of the game entirely? Were you looking at anything outside hockey?
DT: No, I followed the game pretty close last year. I had a couple opportunities that I looked at and they weren’t the right fit. Was just taking my time. Then something like this came up and it was just intriguing.
SI: Coaching opportunities? Advisory roles?
DT: Both. The break was good for me. I was on a long run, then the last few years in Arizona were tough slugging, so the break was good for me. Now I feel good. I told some friends of mine, it’s about trying to expand, do something different that gets you excited. Being around hockey people is exciting, but being around people who actually build these buildings … right down to a guy like Tod Leiweke, his leadership is phenomenal in pulling people together for a project like this. It’s inspiring to watch.
SI: What were some of the highlights of your time away?
DT: Well, my handicap went way down. That was good.
SI: How down?
DT: I think I’m a five right now.
SI: Not bad.
DT: I’m fortunate to live right on a golf course in Scottsdale where you get 12-month golf. That was a good pastime. I did some travel, watched a lot of games, caught up with people. Really just reenergized getting away from the day-to-day grind of the schedule and everything that goes with it.
SI: Did you gain any new perspective being on the couch?
DT: You’re always looking for new challenges. That’s really what it came down to. It was a hard go, dealing with an ownership change again in Arizona, I was looking for a new challenge. Then when I stepped away I started enjoying myself, getting back to reality and spending time with my family. It was a good year. Then something like this comes along.
SI: Have you ever taken a year off? You went right from playing to coaching [with the AHL’s Houston Aeros in ‘95-96].
DT: The only times I’ve had off were lockout years.
SI: Did you start getting the itch after a while, wishing you could leap through the TV and onto the bench?
DT: It’s funny, there’s two sides to that. There are times you say it’d be fun to be involved. It’s a tight game, a great game and it’s just like the ultimate chess match. Then there are different times when I see friends of mine behind the bench who are under a lot pressure and you look at them and go, You look awful. I was watching a game one night and I said to my wife, holy cow, he looks awful on the bench. And she looks at me and goes, "That was you last year." Well, okay. Now I know why I needed a break. You know how coaches get behind the bench, pacing up and down … it’s a really hard job.
SI: Like all of us, I assume you gravitated toward watching Vegas last year. But now that you’ve dug in and done some deeper research, what’s struck you about what they built?
DT: Well, their staff did a really good job finding motivated players between 22 and 28 [years old], players who were out of entry-level and really looking for more opportunity. [Head coach] Gerard [Gallant] did a real nice job. Their coaching staff did a real nice job of meshing everybody together, getting everybody onboard and giving everybody a piece of the pie, so they all came together really well.
I think that tragedy of Oct. 1 really bonded the city and the team also. That’s a unique way to bond a team. But I think that really brought them a lot closer very quickly.
SI: Did they make it tougher for you? Opposing GMs aren’t going to be as willing to help you out.
DT: Well, the rules will be the same. People will learn from it, but with the rules in place, the NHL has given a team an opportunity to get some good players. They’ve set a high bar, for sure. But I’d rather be trying to chase a high bar than just knowing you’re going to be brutal for five years.
SI: Do you try to keep working out your coaching muscles in the event you end up behind the bench?
DT: I still watch games like a coach and talk to a lot of coaches. Those are all things you think about all the time.
SI: You won’t lose it.
DT: I did it for a long time. A lot of it’s engrained. But more the stuff now is watching the game, getting the nuances. It’s less about structure but more about the style, pace of game, lots of things like that coming into play now. It’s just the evolution of the game.
When you’re out of it, you might see trends better because you watch all teams and not just yours. There’s less emotion involved in your thinking. You could have the best team in the history of hockey and when you lose you’re still sour the next day. But when you’re just evaluating what happened in the game, there’s no emotion involved.
SI: Well, you were in Arizona for awhile.
DT: It was just time for a change. I felt like that a little bit in Dallas too. I was there for eight years or seven years to whatever. It comes to the point where you want to get reinvigorated again, and that’s where I was.
SI: When do you plan to get some more colleagues?
DT: We’re looking at next spring. I think we’ll hone in on a GM and see how that goes. We might have to wait until after the draft next year. In Vegas’s case, George McPhee wasn’t working so they hired him in June. We’ve got a lot of planning to do before then, solidifying the timeline of when we’re going to start up.
SI: How much traveling around have you done?
DT: I was in Minnesota a week before last, looking at their new facility. I was up at my old alma mater, North Dakota. Checked a couple of American League places. That’ll start to ramp up this fall, once the season gets going. I’d like to meet with some people and see some games.
SI: From now until, say, the All-Star break, what are the big items on your checklist?
DT: We’ve got to get our practice facility and the team spaces in the KeyArena, make sure they’re all set to go from a hockey point of view. That’ll be front and center. The other thing, we’ll continue to monitor things in the league, looking at possibilities who might be good on our staff moving forward, then you’re trying to finalize budgets, all those things come into play.
SI: Have you started fantasizing about roster construction?
DT: No, I’ve got a program that I put together to monitor teams. I have my own thoughts of when you put the rules in place, who teams might protect and who they might let go. But it’s so hard when you’re two years out. So much can change with player eligibility and movement. More than anything, trying to put together ways to monitor the league. But the roster part of it will change dramatically in two years.
SI: What do you mean by a program?
DT: A software program to monitor teams, so you have their rosters on it and you can move players around in and out to protected or not protected.
SI: You built that?
DT: A couple interns helped me. They know how to build those things more than I do.
SI: When you were first approached by Tim, did you have any reservations?
DT: No, Tod Leiweke took a big leap of faith leaving the NFL [as COO under commissioner Roger Goodell] to come here. One of my meetings with him, we sat and talked and he basically said that: “If you want to come on, you’re going to have to take a leap of faith.” I knew what I was getting into. I don't think he would’ve taken a leap like he did unless he had a pretty good idea things were going to work out, and I felt the same way.
And who knows? Maybe things change. But right now I think things are moving in the right direction.