A “critical piece’’ fell into place for NHL Seattle on Monday when the American Hockey League officially approved a franchise based in Palm Springs, Calif., to serve as its primary farm team.
At a Monday morning news conference in Palm Springs, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and his brother, Tim, head of the Los Angeles-based Oak View Group, said the AHL team will begin play in a new, $250 million arena in October 2021. That synchronizes with the NHL franchise’s launch date and provides a direct-flight destination for its prospects to be on call if needed.
“AHL was truly mission critical,’’ Tod Leiweke said. “We had to get it right.’’
The 10,000-seat arena, being built in downtown Palm Springs by OVG and the Agua Caliente Indian tribe, will also have an adjacent training center the AHL team will be headquartered in — with both facilities providing two sheets of ice for use by the team and community. Both will also be about five minutes from the airport.
“It’s such a critical piece to what we want to do,’’ Leiweke said of the AHL franchise. “It’s really a proving ground, not just for our players, but for our coaches and general manager.’’
Leiweke said “it won’t be too much longer’’ for the team to be named and a logo and uniform unveiled.
Leiweke suggested part of the NHL team’s training camp could take place in Palm Springs if general manager Ron Francis — who will lead hockey operations for both teams — feels it will work. He said the destination is already popular as a vacation and second-home spot for Seattle residents and envisions many making the trip to see the NHL team’s prospects in action.
Quoting Francis on the merits of Palm Springs, he added the GM felt the only downside was: “When we call the player up, they’re not going to want to come.’’
NHL Seattle looked at a variety of locations for the franchise, eventually paring the list to Palm Springs and Boise, Idaho, earlier this year. It preferred Palm Springs because of the ability to get a new arena built, as opposed to going with an existing one in Idaho currently used by an ECHL franchise.
That plan came together in June when OVG reached a deal with Agua Caliente to partner on the arena’s construction. From there, it was a matter of getting the AHL to approve the franchise application, which it did at a recent board meeting.
Beyond the easy access from Seattle, the Palm Springs location puts a sixth AHL team in California — along with Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego, San Jose and Stockton — and allows for the new team to take buses or short plane rides to a majority of games.
Tim Leiweke said the privately financed arena will be a year-round destination for “world-class music’’ with acts provided largely by his OVG co-founder, entertainment mogul Irving Azoff. Leiweke also mentioned the possibility of NBA exhibition games being played at the venue, along with G-league matchups depending on whether his Agua Caliente partners want to showcase that developmental circuit as well.
“If we have an opportunity to do a preseason game or two in the building, we’d welcome that with the Lakers, Clippers, or any other clubs,’’ Leiweke said.
Arena construction is to begin the first quarter of next year and be completed by mid-to-late September 2021. Like the $930 million KeyArena rebuild, which OVG is also spearheading, the Palm Springs venue’s grandstands will be largely below ground — allowing for a maximization of space without impacting outdoor views of the surrounding desert mountains.
“The great thing is, your weather cooperates,’’ he told those attending the news conference. “And so, that allows us to accelerate the schedule without having to worry about winters.’’