Years of campaigning and careful planning have led up to this moment. The NHL Board of Directors gathered Tuesday in Sea Island, Georgia to unanimously award an expansion franchise to Seattle.
“Today is a dream come true for an entire city,” said NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke.
Approving a hockey team in Seattle makes the Emerald City the league’s 32nd team and helps open a new $700 million arena at Seattle Center. The franchise is expected to start playing in 2021, which is a year later than anyone previously anticipated.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Seattle had the three necessary components to win an expansion: Committed ownership, a thriving market, and a state-of-the-art venue. Seattle also boasts an impressive fan base that reached the NHL’s 10,000 season ticket deposit goal in 12 minutes.
The as-yet unnamed franchise will be the Emerald City’s first major winter sports team since the NBA’s SuperSonics left town in 2008.
“Today is an exciting and historic day for our league as we expand to one of North America’s most innovative, beautiful and fastest-growing cities,” Bettman said. “And we are thrilled that Seattle, a city with a proud hockey history that includes being the home for the first American team ever to win the Stanley Cup, is finally joining the NHL.”
The announcement came a few moments after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan let the news slip at a watch party in Seattle, prompting cheers: “I got a call from a mole in the room and it was a unanimous vote. We’re getting hockey.”
The Seattle team evens the number of teams in the NHL’s Eastern and Western conferences and creates “instant rivalries out west” between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., according to Bettman.
“Expanding to Seattle makes the National Hockey League more balanced, even more whole, and even more vibrant,” Bettman said.
WATCH: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan reacts to NHL announcement
The owners will pay a $650 million expansion fee, up from the $500 million the Vegas Golden Knights paid to join the league. The NHL will also realign its two divisions in the West for the 2021-22 season: Seattle will play the Pacific, home to its closest geographic rivals like Vancouver, Calgary and San Jose, and the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division.
The remarkable debut by Vegas in 2017, which included a run to the Stanley Cup Final, gave the league more confidence about moving forward so quickly.
Seattle will benefit from the same expansion draft rules Vegas had. Its front office is expected to be led by Dave Tippett, a former coach who would lead the search for the club’s first general manager and staff. Tippett signed on to the project because of a connection to Tod Leiweke, a major force in delivering an NHL team to Seattle.
Arena investors had initially been interested in a 2020 start when the new arena is scheduled to open. However, the NHL was concerned with uncertainty in the arena construction timeline, and wanted to make sure every aspect of the franchise was ready to go.
As far as a team name, the ownership group said there isn’t a name picked out yet, although the group said it would listen to fan input.
“We’re going to take our time,” Tod Leiweke said. “There’s a group of owners involved…but we’re going to listen to our fans.”
WATCH: Bettman, Leiweke, Bonderman on next steps RELATED: Seattle’s arena saga: Top officials reflect on Sonics history, regrets
When asked if the Metropolitans, which was the name of Seattle’s hockey team that won the Stanley Cup back in 1917, was on the table, Bettman said it hadn’t been submitted to the NHL, and pointed out the league has a division by that name already.
There have been numerous stops and starts and different arena ideas to get to this point. The NBA infamously vacated KeyArena back in 2008. However, the NHL has long targeted the Seattle market for expansion. The league percolated ears in this latest round back in 2011, when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told KING 5 the league had serious interest in the market. However, multiple people came and went, and ideas for arenas in Seattle, Tukwila, Bellevue, and elsewhere evaporated too.
University of Washington graduate and billionaire David Bonderman, movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and Tim Leiweke’s Oak View Group put the billion dollar deal together for a new arena and hockey franchise. Last October, they made the presentation to the league’s executive committee of owners. That group voted unanimously to recommend the expansion application to be voted on at this December meeting. Bonderman, Bruckheimer, and Tod Leiweke are all on location in Sea Island. Sounders Owner Adrian Hanauer, a minority investor, is also attending.
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The groundbreaking ceremony for the new arena at Seattle Center will be held Wednesday, December 5, at 3 p.m.
The NHL’s launch in Seattle will show how starved fans are for another team. Basketball is embedded in the DNA of the region thanks to 41 years of the SuperSonics and a lengthy history of producing NBA talent. When the rain of the fall and winter drive young athletes inside, they grab a basketball and head for the nearest gym to play pickup games. Basketball courts and coffee shops seem to be on every corner, but ice rinks are scarce.
A lot about Seattle is different from 2008, when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. The skyline is filled with construction cranes. Amazon has taken over an entire section of the city, joined nearby by satellite offices of Google and Facebook. The amount of wealth now in the Seattle market is part of the reason Tim Leiweke, Tod’s older brother, has regularly called the city “a brilliant marketplace” and one of the most enticing expansion opportunities in pro sports history.
Seattle has become a city of transplants due to the booming local economy. A hockey franchise would provide those newcomers a team to rally around, much like what happened when the Sounders of Major League Soccer arrived in 2009 – the last team added to the city’s sport landscape. The Sonics were the first, joining the NBA in 1967, followed by the arrival of the Seahawks in 1976 and Mariners in 1977 after construction of the Kingdome.
There have been several attempts at solving Seattle’s arena issues and landing either an NHL or NBA team in the years since the Sonics left, but none had the support of the city or the private money attached until now.
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While Seattle basks in the news, it’s not clear the NHL will be satisfied at 32 teams even with the new team providing balance between the Eastern and Western conferences and a natural, cross-border rival for the Vancouver Canucks.
Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said recently that there’s no magic number, even though no major North American sports league has ever grown beyond 32 teams. He said simply that expansion is appropriate when it adds value to the league. Houston, Quebec City and Toronto have all been touted as possible new homes someday.