The NHL launches its 2018-19 season on Wednesday, just 24 hours after the league's executive committee meets in New York with a Seattle delegation looking to bring an expansion franchise to this city. Expect the committee to do everything to keep that process rolling.
Inside the NHL
This week marks the start of a new National Hockey League season and very likely a new era for the circuit in our city.
While nothing official will come out of a Tuesday meeting between the NHL Seattle group and the league’s executive committee, any positive nod makes the deal as good as done. Sure, there would still be a vote required by the 31-member NHL board of governors, likely in Florida come early December, to award Seattle an expansion franchise to play at a remodeled KeyArena starting in October 2020.
But the board of governors has never nixed an expansion recommendation by the all-powerful, 10-member executive committee. And if you’re weighing the odds of a positive recommendation out of that committee on Tuesday, well, that particular deck comes about as stacked as the Washington Capitals lineup that will open defense of its Stanley Cup championship the following night against the Boston Bruins.
First off, the executive committee chairman is none other than Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, also known as the 50-year patriarch of family business Delaware North, which happens to have a deal as lead concessionaire of the soon-to-be-revamped KeyArena. Next, you have Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who worked tightly with NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke for years when he was Lightning CEO and helped Vinik with his Channelside real estate development project.
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Leiweke’s brother, Tim, who will copresent alongside NHL Seattle at Tuesday’s meeting, is chairman of the Oak View Group company handling the planned $700 million KeyArena renovation. Four of the eight remaining members of the NHL executive committee — Ted Leonsis of the Capitals, Craig Leipold of the Minnesota Wild, Rocky Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks and Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs — represent teams playing in arenas now partnered with OVG’s “arena alliance’’ event marketing and promotions initiative.
Sure, Tim Leiweke and former boss Tanenbaum had differences while working together a few years back under the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment umbrella in Toronto. But not enough to prevent the ongoing business deal between Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena and OVG.
So, that’s a good start as far as winning over the executive committee goes.
Others making Seattle’s presentation Tuesday will include Mayor Jenny Durkan and future team owners David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer. It should be noted Bruckheimer has a longstanding personal relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who, along with executive committee chairman Jacobs, arguably holds the most sway over the board of governors.
And let’s get right down to it: Money talks. A league that once allowed convicted swindler John Spano into its ownership ranks knows it could do far worse than adding a bona fide multibillionaire.
Bonderman has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $3.3 billion. Only 14 out of 31 NHL clubs are owned by multibillionaires, and Bonderman would rank tied for 12th with Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini. Throw in Bruckheimer’s reported $850 million net worth, and you’d have a Seattle ownership duo ranking well among the league’s top 10.
That alone doesn’t make Seattle’s the perfect ownership group. But the more billions you have, the less likely you’ll be threatened financially by every sudden market downturn.
The NHL has come a long way since the late 1980s, when Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was said to have traded icon Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings to offset financial struggles. The Kings, by the way, were then owned by Bruce McNall, who misrepresented his net worth, endured his own financial mishaps and was later convicted of fraud for bilking six banks out of $236 million.
Like I said, the NHL has come a long way, with 20 individual billionaires now running teams.
Plus, though some owners are now said to be privately quibbling that NHL Seattle is getting too good a deal with its $650 million expansion fee, that’s still one heck of a lot of money to split 31 ways. Don’t forget, just three years ago, folks thought the Vegas Golden Knights paying $500 million for an expansion team was too much.
Effectively, it’s the early financial success of those Golden Knights spurring talk of Seattle getting off too cheaply. Still, the Seattle franchise, unlike Vegas, will be competing with NFL, MLB, MLS and a major college football program — not to mention a likely future NBA franchise and smaller pro sports teams — for this market’s sports dollars.
So, nobody is rejecting Seattle on that expansion fee basis. And it’s highly unlikely the executive committee rejects Seattle on any basis after chasing this market for years.
Too many team owners — some of which have no doubt already spent their cut of the $650 million in their minds — want this to happen.
Plus, with the season starting Wednesday, any postponement of the Seattle announcement would spur exactly the talk good leagues look to avoid. There are some great NHL story lines to emerge the past 12 months, between the Capitals finally winning a Stanley Cup, the first-year Golden Knights making the final and even the Toronto Maple Leafs possibly becoming a contender for their first championship since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.
Want to ruin the warm and fuzzy feelings in two countries before the season even begins? Delay setting a Seattle franchise vote for December and get every North American media outlet speculating about how it’s because the NHL fears a lockout as early as next September.
Sure, that lockout stuff might happen. But you don’t put off major business decisions years in the making because of a hypothetical a year down the road.
No, the smart money is on the NHL doing the smart thing. It finally got the Seattle City Council to green-light the arena the league long wanted in this market. Now, with only the NHL capable of stopping Seattle from becoming its 32nd franchise, look for the Jacobs-led executive committee to listen closely on Tuesday, break into smiles and do all it can to help finish this process by year’s end.