What’s the rudest thing you can say to people that have already invested hundreds of millions more dollars into a project than expected? That they better keep the money coming.
But that’s the advice for the NHL Seattle ownership group when it comes time to build a team. And that’s what this hockey-hungry fan base should expect of them.
Thursday, Hall of Fame center Ron Francis was introduced as the yet-to-be-named team’s general manager. He arrived after spending four years as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, who never made the postseason under his watch.
Normally, such a playoff-less stretch might turn off an employer set to make the franchise’s most important hire. But in Seattle, the powers knew that Francis was working with a budget stuck in the penalty box.
In Francis’ final three years in Carolina, the Hurricanes had either the lowest or second-lowest budget in the NHL. And yet, through drafting and trading, Ron put together a team that finally broke into the playoffs the season after he was let go.
NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke saw what Francis was able to construct while ownership pinched pennies. So he’s damn intrigued by what Francis can do when ownership drops bills.
“When he was general manager, the team was up for sale, so it wasn’t perfect conditions for someone who came in. But he then did it the hard way. He drafted, developed and stayed patient,” Leiweke said. “He learned the hardest lesson there is in sports — how to take less chips and compete with the other teams. He’s going to get an equal number of chips here. We’re going to compete. We’re going to be a cap team. We’re going to have great facilities and the resources.”
Well, there it is. The team president is on record saying ownership is going to give Francis the stack necessary to build a Stanley Cup contender. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll deliver, as teams constantly misspend large sums of cash (see: Mariners). But if Leiweke is true to his word, his new GM will at least have the proper set of tools to build.
To Francis’ credit, he never disparaged his situation in Carolina. He said that his job has always been to work with the dollar amount he is given, and seems grateful for every opportunity that he got.
But this is also a man who was replete with options. He didn’t come to Seattle out of desperation but rather fascination — and freedom to operate was part of it.
“We talked about what their vision and what their plan is,” Francis said of NHL Seattle. “And I think this team is going to be in good shape as far as being able to go out and get players — whether it’s free agents or taking on players with bigger contracts — because they want to do things right.”
Priority one for Francis, after he hires a coach, that is, will be building through the expansion draft. That’s how the Vegas Golden Knights created a team good enough to reach the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season two years ago.
But sustained success is what is going to keep the fans coming to KeyArena every year, and it’s nearly impossible to do that without a willingness to spend.
So far, this ownership group has shown that willingness. KeyArena renovation costs were initially projected at $600 million, but have since ballooned to over $900 million. There is also an $85 million practice facility in the works, and God knows what else.
But between David Bonderman, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tim Leiweke and other backers, the financial commitment remains strong. We’ll see if that continues to be the case.
Tod Leiweke was close to tears after Thursday’s news conference when he looked over at Ron Francis. It was the most tangible step taken since breaking ground in turning this NHL vision into a reality.
There is no doubt that the passion is there for everybody involved. But for this team to become an NHL power, the money must be, too.