Officially all the NHL is doing is allowing a Seattle ownership group to make an ownership bid to which they will make the usual standard investigations about how appropriate it is, subject to league approval. Forget about them, they are just a formality. Seattle now has an NHL team, exactly a century after they became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup. It’s over; unless something incredible happens, the NHL is not going to refund $650 million back to Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman. Seattle will begin play in the 2020-21 season.
The NHL had been eying Seattle for the past several years. Seattle is an obvious NHL expansion city, one of the better ones (I had it listed in my group of top 10 cities for NHL expansion), with deep roots in hockey in Canada, competing for the Stanley Cup in even its pre-NHL period and for decades in the CHL, competing for Canada’s top junior trophy, the Memorial Cup. In fact the only surprise is why it took 100 years to join the NHL. And if Las Vegas with its doubtful market is proving to be an overwhelming success because of excellent ownership, the same conditions should make the new Seattle team an undoubted, sure winner.
The new Seattle team will play in a $600 million renovated, Key Arena, a sports facility that opened in 1962 and is therefore 55 years old (more on the repercussions of this decision later). Aping Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley, Bruckheimer and Bonderman will conduct their own preliminary season ticket drive to see who will put their money where their mouths are.
Perhaps even more important than Seattle’s admission to the NHL is its repercussions for the future. The news of Seattle joining the NHL has direct repercussions on Phoenix, Vancouver, Hartford, Calgary, NHL realignment, renovated arenas, the NBA, and future NHL expansion. All these topics probably need full, fleshed-out articles, but I’ll go over them briefly now.
This is the easiest one to document. Edmonton and Calgary were always each other’s best rivals with Vancouver their number two choice. Vancouver will now have its own best NHL rival all to itself, joining the Seattle Sounders-Vancouver Whitecaps MLS rivalry. Seattle will also have rivalries with Edmonton, Calgary, all the California teams, and possibly Las Vegas.
With the current troubles about where the Arizona Coyotes will play in the future, there were rumors that Seattle and Portland were cities that the current Coyote ownership was negotiating with for possible relocation. The granting of an NHL franchise to Seattle obviously rules out the Coyotes moving there. Baring a miracle about building a new downtown Phoenix arena, funded by taxpayers, where will the Coyotes play? Houston, Portland, Quebec, and Hartford are still in the running.
Originally it was supposed to be a new NBA franchise owner of a returned Supersonics building a brand new arena with an NHL expansion team as a tenant. But now the NHL has beaten the NBA to the punch. Where does this leave a returned Supersonics?
Calgary, Hartford And Renovated Arenas
As noted above, by virtually granting a team to Seattle, the NHL is saying that they approve the renovation of an old, 55 year old arena. Yet at the same time, the NHL is telling the Calgary Flames ownership to play hardball with Calgary taxpayers and city officials about building a new arena to succeed the 34 year old Saddledome, one of the NHL’s better arenas with over 19,000 seats (see below about the Seattle renovation). Just what is wrong with the Calgary Saddledome? The Flames ownership won’t say since they want a new arena that they don’t have to pay for. But surely a cheaper renovation of the existing building is much better for taxpayers and city officials than building a costly, perhaps unnecessary new arena. If the NHL is going to a accept a renovated arena in Seattle, how can they turn down a cheaper Calgary renovation?
For Hartford, the admission of Seattle in a renovated old arena should mean that the NHL will also approve the $250 million renovation Hartford and Connecticut plan to spend to get the Whalers back. The XL Center is only 41 years old so if the NHL can accept the Key Arena, they should also accept the XL Center. The new renovation will give the XL Center over 19,000 seats (again see below about the Seattle renovation).
More importantly, if this proposed Seattle renovation is done, the renovated Key Arena’s seating capacity will make it the third smallest arena in the NHL (2nd smallest if the New York Islanders get a new arena), ahead of only Winnipeg and New York. For the money they plan to spend ($600 million), would it not be better to tear down the Key Arena and build a brand new one with enlarged seating instead?
Probably this is only a temporary stopping point in NHL expansion (The NHL has an unofficial commitment to return both Quebec and Hartford to the league plus they want an NHL team in Houston). Probably they want to expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams. But by expanding to 32 teams in balanced conferences, the NHL now has the opportunity to realign into an NFL structure of 2 Conferences, each with 4 divisions of 4 teams each. Once the Seattle franchise is formally approved, expect the NHL to follow it up with an announcement of realignment. Whether there will be other new expansion teams added before this announcement is made remains to be seen.
Future NHL Expansion
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his NHL owners have more than the obvious reason to welcome Seattle into the NHL and probably this is the most important one. The last NHL expansion to Las Vegas was a bust. Probably what the NHL wanted was an expansion of four teams, Quebec and three western cities so the NHL could not only expand but realign as well. Before the expansion was even announced, the press and the Internet were saying that there were four “done deals” already; Quebec, Las Vegas, second Toronto, and Seattle. But of 16 possible bids, only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec City continued on to the end (The Quebec bid was “suspended” by the NHL probably because the NHL does not like the potential owner who made racist statements about an NHL Board owner, is an active pro-separatist of Quebec independence, and is generally untrustworthy), probably because the investment world would not accept a $500 million expansion fee. It was a humiliating failure, probably the first time a “big 4″ league expansion had no competition between rival cities. I even speculated that the NHL would have to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner Bill Foley, and then set a lower expansion fee that the investment world could accept if the league wanted to expand in the future.
But the breach in the wall by Bruckheimer and Bonderman means that Gary Bettman’s brazen gamble paid off. Not only did they accept a $500 million expansion fee, they upped it to $650 million. Bettman has every reason to kiss their rumps. He and his NHL Board are not going to turn down Seattle now, even if the proposed season ticket drive doesn’t get a single client and the new renovated arena is the second smallest in the NHL. Now the investment world will have to accept a higher NHL expansion fee even when the value of any NHL team is not listed in the top 20 sports franchises in North America. Right behind Bettman, the commissioners of the NBA, MLB, and the NFL have lined up to bestow hugs and kisses on Bruckheimer and Bonderman. If the fourth ranked NHL can get expansion fees like this, imagine what their leagues can get when they announce expansion. MLB has already projected Montreal and Portland as its next teams and a realignment into a brand new structure with 32 teams. The NBA also wants to realign once it gets to 32 teams.
So Seattle is in and don’t think this is the end of NHL expansion. Houston, Quebec, and Hartford are waiting and there are probably more potential teams sitting on the fence. A 40 team NHL, here we come.