SEA ISLAND, Ga. — The National Hockey League could announce Tuesday that Seattle’s expected new expansion team will open in October 2021, instead of a year sooner.
NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said on Monday afternoon that delaying the new team’s launch by 12 months is being discussed by team governors as an option ahead of their Tuesday morning expansion vote. Leiweke said he isn’t sure whether the governors would want further consultation with Seattle’s group before the vote but is prepared for any date scenario that emerges.
“We’ve been going back and forth on this,’’ Leiweke said. “There have been ongoing discussions about this. It was the last remaining open issue and it’s something we’re comfortable with either way.’’
Asked about the start date Monday, after the two-day governor meetings opened here at The Cloisters hotel, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — who’d previously said the league would likely wait into next year before making a call on the date — didn’t rule out a final decision happening Tuesday.
“I think what I said was … it could be as late as next year to do that,’’ Bettman said. “And then again, it may not. So, you’re all going to have to come back tomorrow to find out the answer to that question.’’
On Oct. 2, after a positive Seattle expansion recommendation by the league’s executive committee, Bettman said the NHL would closely monitor the KeyArena situation to make sure the renovation timeline was proceeding on schedule.
“I think everybody agrees sooner is better,” Bettman said then of having Seattle open play in 2020. “But we have to and they have to get comfortable with the timeline as to what’s realistic. Obviously, it would be unfortunate in the extreme if we decided to go at one time and the building wasn’t ready.’’
But in the two months since that statement was made, deputy commissioner Bill Daly in multiple interviews has strongly hinted the NHL favors a later start date. Talk throughout the hotel corridors here, as governors from the 31 NHL teams arrived for the meetings, was that league sentiment was in favor of a 2021 start date being announced here.
One of the advantages of a later start would be the virtual guarantee KeyArena would be fully renovated and open on time for the new team to play its first game at home instead of on the road.
A launch in October 2021 would also allow the team’s practice facility at Northgate Mall more time to be planned, built and opened for when the team starts play. The new team could also host its own expansion draft at KeyArena, the way the Vegas Golden Knights did in their home facility.
Having a firm date in place would enable the new team to also start selling season tickets in January without fans having to guess which year they’ll actually get to start seeing games played.
And a 2021 start would provide security for the team and league in the event NHL players decide next year to terminate their collective-bargaining agreement with the league two years early in September 2020.
That would raise the potential for a work stoppage just as an October 2020 launch of Seattle’s team was about to occur. Putting the launch off by a year eliminates that threat.
The downside is that delaying the franchise’s start by a year risks dulling some of the momentum that has been building within the Seattle marketplace. There are also potential hockey-personnel hires —such as former Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville — on the open market right now that might not want to wait nearly three more years before the new team takes the ice.
Leiweke and the Seattle ownership group arrived here Monday afternoon to prepare for the Tuesday-morning announcement. Majority owners David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer arrived separately, as did minority shareholders David Wright and Adrian Hanauer.
Wright and Leiweke spent the weekend in Montreal together attending a pair of Canadiens home games as guests of owner Geoff Molson in his Bell Centre private box. They arrived later than expected Monday due to severe thunderstorms throughout the area, but feeling upbeat.
Leiweke and his brother, Tim, who is spearheading the KeyArena renovation through his Oak View Group, have spent the past year feverishly working to overcome political and financial hurdles in order to set the stage for Tuesday morning’s expansion vote.
And regardless of which start date gets chosen, Leiweke said he’s as excited as ever about bringing the NHL to Seattle.
“I’m so excited for the community because it ends their arena saga,’’ Leiweke said. “And then, I’m excited for the fans because they will get to see the great game of hockey being played in their city. The thought that we’re going to get to see the Montreal Canadiens play a game in Seattle at some point in the near future is something I just get goose bumps thinking about.’’
The board of governors begins meeting Tuesday morning at 8:30 local time here. The Seattle group has a special “green room” conference room set up for it to wait in starting about 9:30 and could be called in to answer questions from governors within about an hour of that.
By 11:30 — 8:30 a.m. PT — the governors’ meeting is to end and a news conference is scheduled for a half-hour after that.
One of those watching the governors hustle off to meetings Monday was Todd Humphrey, a former professional hockey player who is now an entrepreneur and the CEO of Seattle-based project management firm LiquidPlanner. The Toronto native, who has lived in Seattle the past 18 years and was a member of the city’s KeyArena advisory panel, feels the hockey demographics within the city have greatly changed the past decade or so.
“I think part of what’s happening is with companies like Amazon moving so many people in, you’ve got people from all over the country and Canada and other parts that are hockey fans and now show up to the city without a team”, said Humphrey, a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, admitting he’s felt the same void no longer having a hometown team.
“So, the conversations I’ve been having are that people are not just excited about it, they are just anxious for us to get one. So, I think there are certainly more hockey fans than there were 10, 12 or 15 years ago. And I think that’s going to grow exponentially.’’
Humphrey recently joined the NHL Seattle technology-advisory board and was invited as Leiweke’s guest for the announcement.
Humphrey feels fans in Seattle are the kind that will appreciate hockey’s rugged, high-octane side.
“I think the fan base is a rabid fan base, if you look at the Seahawks and the Sounders as great examples,’’ Humphrey said. “So, I think the integration of economics, the population and the demographics and more importantly, just the fans are going to fall in love with this game.
“So, we’re more than ready and we’re going to more than support it.’’
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