Until now, hockey has been a niche sport in the Pacific Northwest. That’s about to change, with a vengeance. The tedious process of acquisition has finally played itself out. The hard-earned payoff came on Tuesday.
Rid your mind, at last, of all those stark, antiseptic phrases that dominated the past several years, as Seattle plowed ahead in pursuit of a winter sports team.
No more “memorandums of understanding” or “environmental impact statements” or “expansion applications.” No more red tape, no more politicians blathering, no more daydreaming about some hypothetical day way off in the future.
This is real flesh-and-blood hockey now. No more campaigning or posturing or dreaming. No more fighting. It’s truly happening.
Indeed, it has happened.
The NHL on Tuesday approved Seattle’s application for an expansion franchise that will become the league’s 32nd team in 2021. The ownership group is led by Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer and private equity CEO David Bonderman, with the Leiweke brothers, Tod and Tim, masterminding the Byzantine process en route to the unanimous vote Tuesday.
The Seattle group will shell out $650 million in expansion fees ($150 million more than the Vegas Golden Knights, who debuted just two years ago), plus $800 million (the amount the group announced Tuesday) to renovate KeyArena, plus $70 million to build a new training facility.
But those are cold, impersonal numbers. Hockey is a visceral sport that must be lived, breathed, and felt to be truly appreciated. And now we will get to live, breath and feel it at the highest level of performance in the world. The speed, the athleticism, and the artistry of NHL hockey will astound you — far more in person than what you can glean off television.
So if you’re not already an aficionado, if you haven’t been living and dying with the Seattle Thunderbirds or the Everett Silvertips, get ready to embrace a whole new sports world. Junior hockey has scratched the itch for local diehards, but just wait until the likes of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin come to town.
No, it’s not the Sonics, and there will still be a huge void in Seattle until they return. But the winter sports scene has been a dreary landscape for the past 10 years, and this will be a jolt of fresh adrenaline in the cold, wet, gloomy months.
Maybe one day a Stanley Cup final will come to Seattle, and we’ll get to experience the most riveting playoff series in sports, beards and all. And who knows how quickly that will materialize, with expansion rules that are greased to benefit new teams and make them competitive from the outset.
Just ask the Golden Knights, who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final last year in their inaugural season before falling in five games to Washington. It was the most successful expansion team in pro sports history by any measure — wins and losses, community impact, or attendance (more than 100 percent of capacity for the season).
It’s unrealistic to expect that sort of a fairy-tale debut. But the new Seattle team should push hard to forge the same sort of connection with its fan base. It will be harder to accomplish here, no doubt. Seattle has had pro sports teams for more than 50 years, since the Sonics began in 1967-68, while the Golden Knights were the very first one for Vegas. There’s an embrace that brings that can’t be replicated — just ask the lifetime Sonics fans.
But the extraordinary response to season-ticket sales in Seattle — 10,000 sold in the first 12 minutes, 25,000 in the first hour, and 32,000 overall — is a sign of potential hockey mania. The sports marketplace in Seattle is crowded and competitive, but the new hockey team will stand out initially for novelty alone. After that, it’s up to the sport and the franchise to sell itself.
Part of the great fun will be watching the construction of a team, and an infrastructure, before our very eyes. Not just the arena itself, but the front office, the coaching staff, the scouts, and finally the players who will comprise the Seattle … what? The unveiling of the name will be an event in its own right.
Seattle has been the largest market in the country without a professional winter sports team, ever since the Sonics were yanked away to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season. That is true no longer. While the push for the NBA continues, let’s do that hockey, to steal Chance the Rapper’s SNL mantra — and do it with the wide-eyed zeal of an open-minded convert.
If you’re already a puckhead, well, patiently help nurture the rest. The history is already here, if you look for it. The Seattle Metropolitans did become the first U.S.-based team to win the Stanley Cup in 1917, though they disbanded in 1924. The city has a rich legacy of junior and minor-league hockey. Yet it has been a niche sport in the region.
That’s about to change, with a vengeance. The tedious process of acquisition has finally played itself out (though the process of renovating the arena is sure to produce its share of headaches). The hard-earned payoff came Tuesday.
The NHL is coming to Seattle. In living, breathing color.