Inside the NHL

Being offered a rare first-look walk through the “completed” KeyArena renovation had me skeptical.

My last reporter’s sneak peek ahead of an arena’s debut was 24 years ago this week in my native Montreal, when what’s now the Bell Centre replaced the hallowed Forum during the “corporate era’’ for drab facilities. So, with that distaste in mind, I set out for Queen Anne last week for an early look at the $930 million KeyArena rebuild — through the eyes of some impressive virtual reality glasses.

Mortenson, the project’s lead contractor, has a VR program where special eyewear is donned to view the inside of commercial projects in 3-D ahead of being built. For the KeyArena project, they use an empty floor of vast office space to best simulate what walking freely within the arena’s large seating areas and suites will feel like by summer 2021 without bumping into walls.

Despite fears and economic chaos caused by the novel coronavirus, officials last week said work on KeyArena continues unabated — with crews already accustomed to following special health and safety protocols on large projects.

During my 45-minute tour, my Mortenson hosts and Ken Johnsen, construction executive for project developer Oak View Group — whose heads and hands I could see as hologram avatars — took me through multiple arena levels top to bottom. Other than everything being in black and white, it felt uncannily real.

We even stood at center ice, where, I must say, looking up and around at the 17,200-seat bowl was the closest I’ve felt to playing in the NHL.

Advertising

“When I did it, I gathered a bunch of folks at center ice and sang ‘Oh, Canada!’ for them,’’ NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke told me.

The simulations of various arena seating and suite levels were switched up with the click of a button — saving trips up and down a virtual escalator.

There are red lines within the VR scope of vision to indicate locations of real-life walls so no collisions happen. Otherwise, you can walk around corners and through doors to seating areas as if you’re actually inside the arena.

They even took me up to my future workspace, a vintage catwalk-style press box overhanging the top section of seats. When someone suggested walking straight off the catwalk into midair — something OVG honcho Tim Leiweke apparently likes doing for laughs — the 3-D imagery felt so lifelike as I drew closer to the edge that my knees actually weakened.

Speaking of being high up, somebody pulled a folding chair over for me so I could feel what it’s like to sit in the last row of upper-level corner seats. Those are usually the worst seats in any house and a huge test of OVG’s plans for a steepness to seating sections that hearkens to arenas of yesteryear.

The Forum in Montreal had some of the steepest seat grades in sport; providing excellent, intimate sight lines everywhere in the building. I know because I lived three blocks from the Forum in 1992 and 1993 and would wait until just after puck-drop before walking over and getting late bargain deals on Montreal Canadiens tickets that usually put me in the last or second-to-last row.

Advertising

But you could still bank on great views.

It was with this eye that I sat in my “KeyArena” chair, and I was instantly reminded of those Forum days. The new KeyArena has one of the smallest NHL capacities, yet there are excellent sight lines to the ice everywhere and a tight look to the seating bowl that I think hockey fans will appreciate.

Instead of two rows of corporate suites ringing the bowl, there is just one; making for less of a corporate look because sight lines are filled more with fans in seats than luxury boxes.

Also, there are two scoreboards at opposite ends of the ice instead of one above the red line — really opening up views from central seating sections and suites. I’d expect this to eventually become the NHL norm.

From my last-row seat perspective, I could turn around and walk out to the open-feel concourse and peer over a railing down to the glass-enclosed Alaska Airlines Atrium. It was only then that I remembered the atrium doors lead directly out to the street and that most of the arena below the upper deck will actually be underground.

But it was easy to forget that, largely because the upper north end of the arena will have a glass wall of windows — something else I’d forgotten from previous artist renderings — that allow natural light to pour into the venue from outside.

Speaking of windows and natural light, one of my asks was to see the much-hyped Space Needle Lounge, where a windowed view is carved into the ceiling and looks up at the city’s iconic landmark.

We toured other suites and luxury spaces, which I was eager to see because of a story I’d written last month describing design work by the Rockwell firm in New York. The Mount Baker Club food hall for up to 1,300 general season-ticket holders felt like walking through a small village because of the sheer size, yet somehow still maintained a coziness while offering expansive views out to the ice.

The general suites will indeed have tables shaped like a home kitchen island as Rockwell vice president Shawn Sullivan had described for me.

But the biggest impression left on me? That came after the tour, when I’d removed the VR eyewear and started walking back to my car.

The arena construction site was across the street. It suddenly dawned on me the KeyArena I’d just seen was technically the same building I’d attended events at for years. Trust me: that prior version bears zero resemblance to the coming one.

Hologram or not, the new version looks and feels like an entirely different venue. And I can’t wait until it gets colored in.