Amid a lack of indoor ice rinks nationwide, NHL teams — including a group looking to secure a Seattle franchise — are increasingly building and planning luxury practice facilities geared toward public use.
Dave Tippett still has 1980s photos from when his Hartford Whalers, their main arena booked, practiced at any spare rink they could find.
“We used to dress at the Civic Center and get in our cars in our equipment and drive to the other rink,’’ the NHL Seattle group senior adviser said.
But those days are done; the past decade seeing National Hockey League teams build increasingly palatial, full-time practice facilities integral to their long-term survival. Small wonder NHL Seattle, with help from Tippett, has spent months zeroing in on a still-undisclosed site for its training center before our city officially has a team.
Some details about the facility emerged weeks ago, like it eventually housing three ice rinks and costing $30 million-to-$50 million. But there’s been limited discussion about why these facilities actually matter.
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It’s about more than having guaranteed practice space as main NHL arenas get increasingly booked up by year-round events. Entire franchise operations are now relocating to these practice facilities: Making them a team’s most visible public face.
“You need a home base, a hub for your organization and that’s what these things are turning into,’’ Tippett said.
Luxury amenities such as private player lounges, nutrition centers and gymnasiums are being incorporated within the practice facilities to help teams lure free agents.
But these venues are also an opportunity for NHL teams – more so than in other sports – to lure future fans and make money off them.
You can’t walk a few blocks without bumping into a baseball diamond or football field. Put up a hoop over any paved surface, you can play basketball.
But there aren’t enough indoor ice surfaces in most cities to meet youth and adult recreational-hockey demand. So, NHL teams are creating public ice space within their practice facilities, literally forcing fans to come to them.
The St. Louis Blues last week broke ground on a $68 million, 275,000 square-foot suburban practice facility with four rinks. The Minnesota Wild this year opened their TRIA Rink practice facility as the featured top-floor attraction of the new 540,000 square-foot Treasure Island Center in downtown St. Paul.
The Chicago Blackhawks last season moved into a new $65 million, 125,000-square-foot, two-rink MB Ice Arena two blocks from their United Center home. And the Vegas Golden Knights also opened a two-rink, 146,000-square-foot City National Arena practice facility for $25 million.
Two of the future Seattle team’s three planned practice-facility rinks will have full-time public usage while even the NHL training surface will only be reserved four hours daily by the team. That means more ice time for practices by amateur teams, bigger hockey tournaments, figure-skating clubs and all the friends, parents and fans that accompany them.
And creating that type of nonstop foot traffic is what teams and corporate sponsors drool over.
“It’s a big sponsorship opportunity,’’ said Michael Rapkoch, head of Texas-based Sports Value Consulting, who guides teams on stadium and arena deals.
NHL teams rarely release details of sponsorship deals at practice facilities.
But for naming rights alone, industry insiders had speculated the Blackhawks could receive $1.5 million-to-$2 million annually for their new practice facility. Financial terms of the team’s naming rights deal with MB Bank were not disclosed, but reports have suggested it’s for 12 years.
“Every deal is different,’’ Rapkoch said. “What you end up getting depends very much on what you’re ready to include in the deal.’’
Teams typically receive $4 million-to-$6 million annually for naming rights on their main arenas. Rapkoch said most NHL teams could reasonably hope to generate $750,000 to $1 million in annual naming-rights money on a training venue.
That’s some big loot considering a training complex costs about one tenth as much to build as a main arena. Rapkoch said teams could earn even more if sweetening their rights deals with season tickets, a luxury suite or memberships to a health club at the training site.
What’s driving sponsors to pay those prices? All that public foot traffic.
Chicago’s new facility has 22 team and public locker rooms and has set aside 94 percent of ice time for public usage. Minnesota’s offers 5,000 annual hours of public rink use. Both project up to 600,000 annual visitors while St. Louis hopes for 1 million.
Each rink has hundreds of seats so fans can watch the NHL team practice – usually for free. The Golden Knights had so many fans attending team practices at their 600-seat rink they had to turn people away.
Sponsors love such brand visibility at all hours of the day. And NHL teams are getting ever creative in maximizing practice-facility revenue.
Pittsburgh Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux used his own name to enhance a major sponsorship deal with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center at his team’s $72 million practice facility. The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which opened in 2015, now has an on-site sports-medicine center run by the school.
UPMC benefitted from the tie-in to Lemieux’s strong personal brand while the team’s facility drew more foot traffic because of the sports-medicine resources.
Teams are putting restaurants, merchandising stores and other concessions into their facilities. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley owns a full-service pizza pub overlooking his team’s practice rink.
NHL players often view having newer practice facilities as make-or-break contract items.
“Players now, they want to go to a facility where they know they can get better, the team is committed to winning and there are people working in there that can help them be their best,’’ Tippett said.
Tippett plans site visits to the Chicago and St. Paul facilities and another built by his alma mater University of North Dakota. He already knows what he’d like to emulate, but wants to make sure he hasn’t missed anything new so Seattle’s team can incorporate the best of what’s out there.
“If you’re really serious about winning,’’ he said, “it’s just essential to your organization.’’