A group of Seattle sports, business and political leaders will make a cross-border pilgrimage next week to learn more about the National Hockey League.
The overnight trip to Vancouver, to attend a reception at B.C. Place with sports and tourism officials from that city and then watch a Canucks hockey game, was planned months ago. But the timing couldn’t be better, given continued negotiations behind the scenes to bring an NHL expansion franchise to this city and a sense the league could begin moving seriously toward that soon after the Olympics in Sochi conclude.
Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission that is spearheading the chartered bus trip for about 30 local participants, said it’s about more than just hockey — but that the NHL will certainly be on the agenda.
“You’ve got some people on the trip who have never been to an NHL game before,” Morton said. “So, at the very least, they’ll come back with a greater understanding of what hockey is and what it takes to present the sport to fans at the NHL level.”
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One of those greeting them in Vancouver on Wednesday will be Victor de Bonis, chief operating officer for the Canucks and the team’s alternate governor for NHL board meetings. De Bonis is expected to give some welcoming remarks to the Seattle delegation, and other Canucks officials are supposed to attend the reception with him before that night’s game against the St. Louis Blues.
There will also be representatives from the B.C. Lions football team and Vancouver Whitecaps soccer squad on hand as officials from both cities explore potential joint marketing and event ventures. But while a variety of topics will likely be discussed, Walt Judas, vice president for marketing and communications from event host Tourism Vancouver, said hockey will be at the forefront.
“No question,” Judas said. “I think there’s been some interest expressed by Seattle in having a team, and this is a good step, a small step, in that direction.”
Judas suggested the Seattle group should learn more about the NHL experience and what it takes to put on a game, both from an in-game production and customer-service perspective. He also said some officials from Canucks ownership group Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment were involved in running the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1990s and could offer perspectives on arena sharing and cross-marketing between teams from different sports.
But the bigger benefit will come from the potential relationship building the event is designed to foster, he added.
“By establishing a relationship with people at the Canucks level, certainly they deal with the NHL on a daily basis,” Judas said. “So, they can certainly help give them the lay of the land and a feel for what the temperature of the league is with regard to how things could proceed.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Seattle Times during Super Bowl week that the league has made no official decision on expansion. But Daly also said the league feels it has stabilized current franchises as best it can and the natural next step would be a growth phase and possible expansion, with Seattle a serious contender once that step is taken.
Local sources have said the league has held discussions with potential ownership groups here about what the fee would be to land an expansion franchise to begin play in the 2015-16 season. Reports last summer had pegged it at $275 million, but sources now say they expect the price to be somewhere between $200 million and $250 million.
Any league expansion would likely involve a second team to balance the schedule. Potential expansion sites besides Seattle include Quebec City, Kansas City, Portland, the Toronto suburb of Markham, Saskatoon and Las Vegas.
Among those candidates, Quebec City is furthest along, having already begun construction on a new arena and identified an ownership group led by media magnate Pierre-Karl Peladeau. Unlike Quebec City, local officials insist a new arena deal be contingent upon the league first awarding Seattle an expansion franchise.
Any arena deal here will also involve reworking — or completely re-creating — the existing memorandum of understanding signed with Chris Hansen last year when Seattle was seeking an NBA franchise. The deal called for construction of an NBA-first or a joint NBA-NHL arena, but made no provisions for having an NHL-first or NHL-only venue.
Sources have indicated that talks between the NHL and local officials were far enough along that some type of announcement could be made within weeks of the Sochi Olympics concluding. Daly told reporters in Sochi this week that no expansion announcement was imminent.
But it’s unlikely the league would delay an announcement beyond June if it intends to have new teams in 2015-16. Expansion teams typically need a couple of summers to do proper marketing and prepare temporary arena facilities.
Morton said next week’s meeting won’t resolve any of the short-term issues for the city and NHL. But it could lead to the formation of relationships that would help a future NHL franchise succeed here.
Seattle and Vancouver officials held similar gatherings in 2007, when they first explored making joint bids for events like the 2018 World Cup of Soccer, a World’s Fair around 2020, or the 2028 Summer Olympics. Those talks never flourished, but Morton, part of this city’s 2007 delegation, said ideas for smaller joint-marketing opportunities did result.
The two cities have pro soccer and junior-hockey fans, he said, and Mariners fans are in Vancouver and Canucks fans are in Seattle. He said talk of a potential NHL team in Seattle — creating a natural rivalry with the Canucks — makes the timing of this event even better.
“This just gives us a chance to understand their sports business model and how they do business in Vancouver,” Morton said. “And who knows? Maybe down the road we’ll have even more in common.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286
On Twitter @gbakermariners