Inside the NHL
Just less than a year ago, newly hired NHL Seattle senior adviser Dave Tippett lunched with me in Queen Anne and excitedly discussed his newest hockey role with the incoming expansion franchise.
On Friday, we had a similar conversation by phone, only this time Tippett discussed the Edmonton Oilers and boosting their fortunes as that team’s new coach. Alas, the Tippett legacy here will be such that when Seattle’s NHL franchise finally takes the ice in October 2021, a man who played among the biggest roles in shaping it will have already been gone more than two years.
And that was always the question hanging over Tippett: Whether he could endure the wait for Seattle’s team to start playing meaningful games. After all, he’s 57 in a league where the average age of coaches is 54, and it has been two years since his last bench job.
Tippett knew this might be his final crack at offers that began during the regular season and continued throughout the playoffs. NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke had told him from the outset he could pursue coaching gigs, and Tippett had let him know it would either be this year or never.
“Tod and I talked about the possibility of maybe coaching in Seattle, but I don’t think that’s fair to them that I would sit out four or five years and then come back,’’ Tippett said. “I’m just not sure I would want to do it after four years. And to wait that long and be out is just too long to be away from it.’’
Tippett insisted the extra year’s delay in launching the Seattle franchise — a decision that came about in December — had zero impact on his choice.
“I’ve said it before, I didn’t come to Seattle to be the GM or the coach,’’ he said. “I came to help build the hockey infrastructure. That was my main focus, and I really enjoyed that.’’
But it’s safe to say the year’s delay probably didn’t help keep him here. If Tippett was ever going to forgo coaching for a non-GM executive role in Seattle, the excitement of the new team launching 16 months from now would have undoubtedly had greater pull than the current 28-month wait time.
NHL Seattle knew in December it would lose some momentum because of the delay. One of Tippett’s main areas of focus, finding a location for the franchise’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, had seen that call narrowed down months ago to a choice between Palm Springs, Calif., or Boise, Idaho.
And while that news only became public the past week, little has changed on that AHL front since February. Back then, it was a matter of whether the Oak View Group (OVG) run by Leiweke’s brother, Tim, could get an arena built in its preferred California locale — adjacent to a major Los Angeles population center and boasting a plethora of resident ex-NHL players and wealthy hockey fans with vacation or retirement homes.
But OVG has its hands full overhauling KeyArena for a privately financed $930 million, plus a Northgate Mall training facility now projected for north of $80 million. If the Seattle team was launching in October 2020 instead of 2021, the AHL call would have already been made.
Instead, with the extra year, OVG now has time to leverage local politicians in both Palm Springs and Boise to sweeten the proverbial pot — whether that entails using public funds to build a new arena or refurbish an existing one.
Clearly, a brand-new arena designed specifically for AHL games would be preferable to an existing Boise venue now used by an ECHL team. The ECHL is considered a midlevel minor league, whereas AHL promotes more players directly to the NHL and typically requires bigger locker rooms and more state-of-the-art training facilities.
But again, a new arena costs big money, and the question of who pays for it becomes paramount.
It’s a similar holding pattern with the NHL Seattle decision on its first general manager. The man who hired Tippett as Edmonton’s coach, new GM Ken Holland, had been targeted by NHL Seattle until the Oilers blew all suitors away by giving him a record five-year, $25 million contract.
Again, if launching in 2020 and not 2021, NHL Seattle would have already moved on and filled its GM role with somebody else. And while that still might happen this year, the Seattle franchise can afford to wait another 12 months — perhaps leveraging a lower salary with potential candidates — until that hire takes place.
That’s ultimately in NHL Seattle’s best interests. But for former professional athlete competitors, waiting on a team that still doesn’t have a name or a hockey-operations boss and won’t play for nearly 2½ years is a lot to ask.
For what it’s worth, Tippett said he’d turned down a couple of coaching opportunities this past season but finally caved once the playoffs began.
“As spring came, just the playoffs looked like they were so much fun,’’ Tippett said. “I missed that ‘in the pit’ every day kind of thing.’’
And he wasn’t going to cure that itch for “the day-to-day energy that comes from coaching or playing’’ in an executive role. Not right now, anyway.
“It was a different kind of work for me, and I really enjoyed it,’’ he said. “But on the other side is, there’s nothing like being down on that bench in a playoff game.’’
Again, at 57, he’s near the average coaching age. Seven NHL coaches are older than Tippett and seven younger ones are within three years of him. Two-thirds of NHL coaches are 50 or older.
He’ll be paid “in the ballpark” of the $3 million annually that’s been reported, and there’s no way NHL Seattle would come near that for a non-GM executive.
Instead, NHL Seattle will have to settle for knowing Tippett helped scout the AHL location, plan the Northgate training center and focus its mindset on how a fledgling franchise should be built.
“Tipp did everything we wanted and hoped and we’re so very happy for him,’’ Leiweke said Friday.
Tippett had equal praise for his now-former boss and said he’ll “miss the day-to-day interaction’’ and the “intoxicating’’ energy within an NHL Seattle group trying to get the franchise launched.
“I’ve told so many people how it’s an incredible group of people there,’’ Tippett said. “If that team could be as tight as that group of people who are building that arena and putting that team together, it’s going to be an amazing franchise.’’
A franchise that needs to restore some momentum — perhaps by finally announcing a team name and releasing season-ticket prices this fall with no further delays — that has waned since its official December approval.