There undoubtedly will be improved sports venues added to this city’s landscape at some point long after Climate Pledge Arena stops being today’s shiny new toy.
But those who fought to rebuild the former KeyArena into a modernized, state-of-the-art $1.15 billion venue under the previous version’s 44-million-pound, historically preserved roof hope that doesn’t happen for some time. Just as T-Mobile Park is now into its third decade and Lumen Field finishes off its second with no talk of replacement, there’s hope that Climate Pledge can endure for decades more.
And ultimately, once the history of early 21st century Seattle sports is written, all three buildings will have played a defining role.
And in the case of this new arena — all privately financed, unlike the other two venues — it will go down not only as the city’s latest winter sports palace but also the place that on Saturday night will finally showcase a local NHL Kraken franchise some suggest was a century in the making.
“It was essential,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in town for the Kraken’s home opener against the Vancouver Canucks, said of the arena in an interview Friday. “That was always the one thing that had to be taken care of before everything else could fall into place.”
Bettman praised Mayor Jenny Durkan and her predecessors for maintaining the project during the COVID-19 pandemic and years of local headbutting over the arena issue. Durkan is one of five mayors — four elected, one appointed — to hold office since the NBA’s Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008 and thrust the quest for a new arena to the forefront.
The NHL had wanted to expand to Seattle much earlier, but the lack of a suitable arena lingered.
“Obviously, Seattle is familiar with arena debates,” Bettman said. “But what’s great about this is what was done to the old KeyArena. I don’t know if you’ve seen the inside of the arena yet, but it’s unbelievable. In addition to being magnificent, it was an engineering marvel.”
The Vancouver game has on-ice implications for the Kraken, which is off to a 1-3-1 start, struggling to score goals and hoping to be energized by the moment. Saturday’s morning skate ahead of the contest will be the Kraken players’ first time on the ice at their home rink.
“I think all the guys are really jacked up about it,” Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said this week. “I think it’s been a lot of anticipation, and I think not many guys have really gotten a chance to see the rink. I think everyone’s excited to get in there, feel the atmosphere, and we know how excited the city is. So I think we’re excited to finally get a chance to play in front of everybody.”
Kraken captain Mark Giordano added: “We’re getting to be a part of something not many guys are going to be able to say they had at the end of their career, in the history of the game. It’s going to be a pretty special moment for us as players, for our organization, for the city and everyone involved.”
Just reaching this stage was a trying experience for all involved. It took years to get an arena project approved, followed by a nervy wait on construction hampered by the pandemic and other delays.
The final arena seats weren’t installed until just a few weeks ago.
Bettman joked that “they’re still touching up a bit of paint today,” noting how his decision three years ago to postpone the Kraken’s launch from October 2020 to now proved increasingly fortuitous. He’d already worried the arena wouldn’t be done on time long before COVID-19 surfaced.
“Frankly, this franchise is going to be here forever,” Bettman said. “Better to be a year later than people had hoped and getting it right. And they have been getting it right every step of the way.”
Bettman and Durkan joined team officials in a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony at the arena Friday. But that morning, at a different venue on the Seattle Center campus, both were on separate panels at the Venues Now conference — an important gathering for those in the arena and stadium industry — discussing what it took to get Climate Pledge to fruition.
Durkan, as part of a Seattle delegation visiting New York in October 2018, had made a striking personal pitch to Bettman and others on the league’s executive committee. Her words helped seal the committee’s unanimous recommendation that the league’s board of governors formally rubber-stamp the franchise’s approval two months later.
As they passed each other Friday morning in the hallway heading to and from their respective panels, Bettman said he quipped to Durkan: “It’s amazing how you can exceed an unlimited (arena) budget, but you managed to do that.”
Bettman was referring to how the Oak View Group co-founded by Tim Leiweke seemed to have bottomless pockets — bankrolled largely by Kraken majority owner David Bonderman — at “spending whatever is necessary” to cover cost overruns, expensive add-ons and overcome engineering challenges to create a top venue.
Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke, appearing on the same panel as Bettman, told the convention crowd that the arena is “the largest investment in the history of Seattle sports for sure. And significant on a national scale. … It wasn’t for the faint of heart, and it was all privately done without taxpayer dollars.
“And that was part of figuring out the Rubik’s cube of an arena in Seattle. We had to figure out a path that was going to be palatable to a city that had lost its will to fund sports facilities.”
Another panelist, Hollywood film producer and director and Kraken co-owner Jerry Bruckheimer, joked about chasing Bettman around for 20 years trying to buy a hockey team. Now, Bruckheimer told the audience, it seems almost surreal that it’s happening in an arena exceeding his wildest expectations.
“When you see the arena, it’s the best in the world,” Bruckheimer said. “It was absolutely spectacular. This was not a remodel. They built a new arena under that roof.”
And now, 97 years after the Seattle Metropolitans played this city’s most recent major professional hockey game, their Kraken successor will try to live up to the newest palatial venue hoping to embed itself within the local sports fabric.