Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times' Mariners reporter, is a lifelong hockey fan. And a Canadian. He's all for the NHL coming to Seattle but says Quebec City is probably more likely to get a team first.
Snagging the troubled Phoenix Coyotes hockey franchise here in Seattle won’t be the surefire empty-net goal some have suggested.
A deal to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz., fell apart last week when prospective buyer Greg Jamison failed to secure financing in time to meet a Jan. 31 deadline.
Jamison has vowed to continue pursuit of the franchise but is expected to meet considerable opposition from a newly elected Glendale mayor who has already spoken out against favorable conditions attached to the previous deal.
Seattle has plenty to offer as an NHL destination and the rivalry with Vancouver would definitely make the city a top candidate for a relocation of the Coyotes. But Quebec City appears a more viable destination, given the speedy time frame if the league wants the Coyotes in a new home by October. For one thing, Quebec already served as home to a National Hockey League franchise with the Nordiques from 1979-80 through the 1994-95 season and has broken ground on a $400 million arena.
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“People in the league want to see how serious people are in the project, and that there won’t be any going back or (backing out),” former Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut, who is spearheading a bid to bring the NHL back to his city, was quoted in news reports last week. “When you have a building, it shows there is no going back. The people working on the project are the ones who took the risk by working towards the building.”
A recently approved arena for Seattle would appear to need an NBA tenant to be secured first ahead of any construction green light. The hurdle could be cleared if the NBA approves a sale of the Sacramento Kings to a group led by Chris Hansen, but Sacramento groups are emerging there to try to keep the club where it is.
It’s doubtful the NHL would give the go-ahead for the Coyotes to relocate to Seattle without assurances that an NBA team is, in fact, coming and that construction on the new arena can begin.
When it comes to a temporary arena where a relocated Coyotes franchise could be housed, Quebec again has an edge over Seattle’s KeyArena. Quebec would house its new NHL franchise at the Colisee Pepsi, a 15,176-seat venue that served as home to the Nordiques for 15 years and has continued to host international tournaments and major junior hockey in recent years. The new arena package has already set aside $7 million to refurbish the Colisee as a temporary home to any new franchise.
In Seattle, the 15,177-seat (for hockey) KeyArena has never been used for NHL games and hasn’t played host to hockey of any kind since the WHL Thunderbirds left after 2009. That’s an obstacle that could be overcome, but the reality is, there still is not any firmly established ownership group in Seattle that appears ready to take over a hockey team right away. The closest Seattle has to that — at least publicly — is Chicago businessman Don Levin, who has stated previously that his plan centers more on an expansion franchise than anything else.
In Quebec, the new team would be headed by Montreal-based Pierre-Karl Peladeau and his Quebecor media empire, which has broadcast and marketing infrastructures already in place and has secured naming rights to the new arena for $63.5 million.
Local pitchman Aubut is himself a known entity in NHL circles from his previous ownership stint and his current title as president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
Indeed, given the head start Quebec has over Seattle, the more sensible move for the NHL would appear to be relocating the Coyotes to Canada and then letting an expansion club form here in a couple of years.
By that point, any issues over the NBA and building the arena could be resolved. The last thing the NHL — already facing trouble in several U.S. markets — needs is to move one troubled franchise from Phoenix into a Seattle location that isn’t fully prepared for the challenges ahead.
And this market will have its challenges, one of which is this has never been a hockey hotbed. Finding any NHL buzz here come playoff time is a challenge, despite the area’s longstanding junior hockey tradition and the fact the local Metropolitans won a Stanley Cup in 1917.
Any new Seattle team would automatically begin as the No. 2 tenant behind an NBA franchise in its own arena. The club would have to make inroads in a sports community with fierce loyalties to the NFL Seahawks, MLB Mariners, NCAA Huskies and MLS Sounders.
A team in Quebec would face no such problems, given that the next closest sport in terms of popularity is CFL and NFL football, with Canadian college football the biggest live draw.
Hockey passions in Quebec date generations and often take on religious overtones, while the Nordiques’ rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens was among the biggest and fiercest the sport has known.
In Quebec, most hockey fans age 21 and over know that recently replaced Everett Silvertips GM Doug Soetaert served as Patrick Roy’s backup when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1985-86. In Seattle, most fans have barely heard of the Silvertips, let alone Soetaert.
In some ways, that Quebec passion could work in Seattle’s favor. There has already been talk of the NHL expanding to Quebec City and suburban Markham, Ont. (Toronto’s version of Bellevue) within three years.
A big reason the NHL, in a perfect world, would love to stick to that plan is that hockey passions run so deep in both markets that they are a slam dunk to cough up lucrative expansion fees that could run as high as $400 million. Landing those expansion fees would help soothe many of the money problems NHL teams are having in U.S. locales.
But this isn’t a perfect world. And relocating to a Seattle market with no NHL experience, no new arena being built yet and no clearly identified team owner is unlikely to top the league’s wish list.
The safest move for the NHL appears to be flip-flopping the Quebec and Seattle roles if the goal is a new home for the Coyotes come October. Let the Coyotes move to a Quebec market that is ready to take on a team on short notice and make Seattle the expansion partner for Markham down the road.
Landing a hockey team alone won’t be enough for Seattle. This city has to support that team over the long haul. Rushing in an NHL franchise before this city is fully ready for one isn’t the best way to start.
Geoff Baker lived and worked in Montreal for 29 years, including two spent in an apartment three blocks from the old Montreal Forum. He professionally covered midget, junior and college hockey in the province of Quebec in the late 1980s and early 1990s and also the 2002-2003 World Junior Hockey Championships for the Toronto Star. He was a firsthand witness to the Nordiques-Canadiens rivalry, attending multiple playoff games as a fan.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.