DENVER — The Kraken’s first trip to Ball Arena is also a bookend of sorts for the arena-building career of Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, the developer who helped birth Seattle’s new NHL franchise and its Monday night opponent.  

Leiweke and OVG, of course, spearheaded the near $1.2 billion overhaul of Climate Pledge Arena to serve as the Kraken’s home. Up until UBS Arena opened in Long Island, New York, in November, Climate Pledge was Leiweke’s most recent of dozens of sports venue builds worldwide. 

But long before all that, the very first arena project planned by Leiweke was in Denver where the Kraken on Monday night took on the Colorado Avalanche. Ball Arena was first known as the Pepsi Center when it opened back in 1999. But it was Leiweke, president of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets from 1991 to 1995, who’d gotten that venture financed and project-ready by age 38.

“I did the deal with the city, lined up the investors, got the naming rights deal and then got it to ground,” Leiweke said Monday by phone. 

Preliminary site work had already begun when Leiweke was still Nuggets president, well before the arena’s official 1997 groundbreaking. Leiweke inked the $68 million naming rights deal with Pepsi just days before resigning his Nuggets post — citing burnout from his multiple portfolios.

Leiweke had essentially been dispatched to Denver in 1991 by then-NBA commissioner David Stern. He’d admired Leiweke’s work as a senior vice president of marketing with the Minnesota Timberwolves and urged him to both become the Nuggets’ president and lead efforts to replace the team’s prior McNichols Sports Arena. 

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The team back then was owned by Comsat subsidiary Ascent Entertainment. Leiweke, along with Ascent president and CEO Charlie Lyons, partook in the $75.8 million deal that saw Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut sell the company his team in 1995 so it could be relocated to Denver and become the Avalanche. 

“We had to all fly to San Francisco to meet at a restaurant because we didn’t want anybody to see us meeting together,” Leiweke said. “And then Marcel (Aubut) starts talking, and we realize he’s the loudest guy in the entire restaurant. So, everybody that was eating there that night knew this deal was going to go down.”

Leiweke left the Nuggets right before the Avalanche deal was officially announced. The Avalanche went on to win the Stanley Cup their very first 1995-96 season.

One of the potential investors Leiweke had discussed the Pepsi Center with was Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, whom he’d rubbed elbows with locally for years. Anschutz later tried unsuccessfully to buy a piece of the Avalanche and when that didn’t happen, purchased the Los Angeles Kings instead.

The following year, he hired Leiweke to be the team’s president and oversee his new Anschutz Entertainment Group sports venues company. Leiweke became AEG’s first CEO and remained that way until leaving in 2013 and forming OVG three years later.

Leiweke and OVG beat out AEG in a 2017 bid process to land the contract to transform KeyArena into what’s now Climate Pledge. He later brought his younger brother, Tod, to serve as CEO of the soon-to-come Kraken franchise he’d laid the groundwork for before it was officially awarded in December 2018.

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And though Leiweke wasn’t at Monday’s game in Denver, he plans to be at Climate Pledge on Saturday night when the Kraken play host to the Kings team he won a Cup with as president in 2012.

Avalanche are a challenge, Hakstol says

Kraken coach Dave Hakstol didn’t mince words after Monday’s morning skate: His team’s first game in nine days against an Avalanche squad looking every bit like a Cup contender loomed as one of its biggest challenges this season. 

“Really, it’s one where we need to really challenge ourselves as a hockey team in a real challenging circumstance against a good team,” Hakstol said. “We’ve got to challenge ourselves as a hockey team to play a full 60 minutes and be sound and solid.”

Hakstol said the team is physically ready after a tough week of practice. The bigger challenge will be “staying mentally sharp right from the drop of the puck” and not letting up from shift to shift.

“That’s been a challenge for us,” Hakstol said. “And in my opinion, that’s a real challenge for us tonight. Playing a full 60 minutes and not having holes in our game that have created problems for us — especially over the previous two or three games before this layoff.”

Donskoi returns to Denver

Joonas Donskoi, still looking for his first goal but tied for the team lead with 14 assists, said it was “fun” being back in Denver. Donskoi spent the last two seasons with the Avalanche, his most recent regular season goal coming at Ball Arena last May 13 against the Los Angeles Kings. His most recent goal of any kind was also scored here June 8 in the playoffs against Vegas.  

It was while playing for the Avalanche that Donskoi married his wife, Devin, in June 2020. The couple had their first baby last summer right before the Kraken selected him in the expansion draft. 

Note

Kraken defenseman Jeremy Lauzon said Monday that he felt ready to play after a week off in COVID-19 protocol. Lauzon said he was asymptomatic throughout the protocol, which enabled him to continue working out ahead of practicing with the team Sunday for the first time. Alex Wennberg also left protocol and played Monday after being left by Hakstol as a last-minute lineup decision.