According to reports, a press conference has been scheduled for this afternoon in Seattle, where Mayor Mike McGinn is expected to announce an official proposal for a new arena. Chris Hansen, a hedge-fund manager originally from Seattle, has plans to build an arena and bring in an NBA team to Seattle, but hockey fans are interested because the lack of arena appears to be the only thing keeping the NHL out of the Emerald City.
While Hansen himself is interested only in the NBA, having been a Sonics fan growing up, but other groups have been rumoured to be interested in bringing the NHL to Seattle, including Don Levin, part-owner of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
Seattle seems like a prime market for the NHL: it’s USA’s 12th largest television market, 3rd biggest on the west coast and has a long history with hockey stretching back to the Seattle Metropolitans, who were the first team from the United States to win the Stanley Cup way back in 1917. The Metropolitans competed for the Cup two more times, including the only time the Cup wasn’t awarded as their series with the Canadiens in 1919 was cut short due to the Spanish Flu epidemic hitting both teams, leading to the death of Joe Hall of the Canadiens.
I have personal reasons for wanting to see the NHL come to Seattle, as I am a Canucks fan married to an American from near Seattle. Having a potential rival just 3-4 hours down the road with family in the area and tickets that will undoubtedly be cheaper than those in Vancouver is an exciting thought.
There are a couple reasons to be hesitant, however. After all, Atlanta is an even bigger television market than Seattle and hockey didn’t exactly work out there. Also, Seattle has come close twice already to having an NHL franchise, only to have it snatched away at the last second. There’s reason to be a little cynical about their chances this time around.
The biggest years for hockey in Seattle were highlighted by the Seattle Totems, who played in the minor pro Western Hockey League. Competition from the burgeoning WHL was one of the reasons the NHL expanded in 1967, doubling the size of the league and ending the Original Six era. In response, the WHL played two seasons of an interlocking schedule with the AHL as a prelude to a potential merger, but high costs of travel prevented it from coming to fruition.
In the meantime, the Totems began to struggle both on and off the ice. Just to the north, the WHL’s Vancouver Canucks were granted an NHL expansion franchise and Totems co-owner Vince Abbey decided Seattle was next. Despite financial troubles that led to the Canucks purchasing a majority stake in the Totems and operating them as a farm team, Abbey lobbied hard for an expansion franchise.
He got his chance when the upstart World Hockey Association forced the NHL to try to lock down as many potential markets as possible. Seattle was awarded an NHL franchise and was set to join the league for the 1976-77 season. Ads for season tickets were sent out and excitement in the city was high.
Unfortunately, Abbey still didn’t have the money. Not only did he have to pay the expansion fees to the NHL, he still had to repurchase the majority share of the Totems back from the Vancouver Canucks. With the lack of financing and the instability of other recent expansion teams, the NHL put the kibosh on Seattle’s NHL hopes in 1976. By that time, the WHL had shut its doors as well, and the Seattle Totems ceased to be.
Seattle had another kick at the can in the early 90′s, as the NHL announced expansion plans for the 1992-93 season. Two groups emerged and eventually joined forces, one with Microsoft money and the other with the arena. Millionaire Chris Larson and former member of the Seattle Totems Bill MacFarland formed one group, while Bill Ackerley, son of Seattle SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerley, headed up the other group.
Ackerley had already submitted an application and, with funding not an issue, Seattle was considered a frontrunner. Then an odd thing happened. I’ll let Jeff Obermeyer tell this part of the story:
The presentation to the Board of Governors took place on December 5. The Seattle contingent consisted of four representatives: MacFarland, Larson, Barry Ackerley, and Bill Lear, a financial advisor for Ackerley. They met for breakfast and discussed their strategy, then adjourned to a room to await their turn to present.
Gil Stein, Vice President and General Counsel of the NHL, came to escort the group to the meeting. Ackerley then made a strange request. He asked if he and Lear could speak to the Board first in private before the others did their portion of the presentation. It was a complete surprise – they had not discussed this over breakfast, but MacFarland and Larson reluctantly agreed. After all, the application was in Ackerley’s name, so he had the final say. Ackerley and Lear proceeded to the meeting room with Stein while the others waited nervously for their turn. Ten minutes later Stein returned with a strange story. Apparently Ackerley introduced himself to the Board and informed them that the Seattle group was withdrawing its application. No reason was given. Ackerley and Lear then left the room through another exit.
Expansion was instead awarded to Tampa Bay and Ottawa, neither of whom were able to pay the $50 million expansion fee in full.
Shortly after, Ackerley began reconstruction on KeyArena, re-designing it in such a way that it would be completely unsuitable for an NHL franchise but was perfect for the needs of the SuperSonics. Reportedly, the arena has just 10,000 seats with an unobstructed view when set up for hockey. If that series of events strikes you as a coincidence, then you’re a fool.
Seattle hockey fans were once again crushed. Ironically, the Sonics left Seattle in 2008 due to KeyArena being, apparently, “not an adequate arena” according to NBA commissioner David Stern.
It’s unclear whether this latest effort to bring the NHL to Seattle will have any success. The man behind the plans for a new arena is intent only on bringing back the NBA and Seattle hockey fans can only hope that he won’t be as short-sighted as Bill and Barry Ackerley were in 1990. Today’s press conference is scheduled for 2 PM PST: we may find out this afternoon just what this new arena will look like and just how suitable it might be for hockey.