I am giving out grades for 2015 and it is not pretty. I am optimistic on Seattle getting an NHL team but we have work to do.
Last year at this time the outlook for a potential NHL franchise in Seattle was looking promising. The NHL approved Las Vegas to begin a Season Ticket drive. And the Sodo arena process was expected to wrap up during the first part of the year.
At the start of 2015, Victor Coleman was the only known prospective NHL owner for a Seattle franchise with a likely partnership with Chris Hansen’s Sodo project. The optimists were convinced that Hansen and Coleman were working on an agreement and the moment the NHL decides to expand, they would go public with their plan. As the year would go on, two additional ownership groups would emerge. In the first quarter of 2015, Ray Bartoszek would reemerge as a potential NHL owner in Seattle but it would not be at the Sodo location. Instead, his focus was on the Tukwila location. Shortly after the Bartoszek group news, another interested group in team ownership in Bellevue headed by Jac Sperling was reportedly looking to build an arena in Bellevue. The NHL season would go on with very few details or public comments from any of the 3 reported ownership groups. In mid-June, just after the Season concluded, the NHL would formally announce that they would enter an expansion process. It was reported that 4 groups from the Seattle area requested an NHL Expansion application. It was assumed that 3 of the 4 would be Coleman, Bartozek, and Sperling. The 4th ownership group would never be identified. The NHL Expansion Application deadline came and went with exactly zero application submissions from the Seattle area. The Sperling group disappeared or more accurately never really fully appeared. In spite of missing the NHL expansion deadline, both Bartoszek and Coleman pledged their commitment to bring a team to the area. Neither group was very publicly transparent in their progress throughout the year. Towards the end of 2015, the prospects of a Bartoszek group and Tukwila location coming together start to fade with a report that a major investor walked away on the Tukwila plan. This would end 2015 just like we started. All hope lives and dies with Victor Coleman, who we can only hope remains convicted on his plans to bring an NHL team to Seattle.
Grade: I (for incomplete) It remains unclear on the progress and potential of any of these ownership groups. The optimists says, there is no need for Coleman to reveal his progress and he will emerge when he needs to come public. The pessimists says the silence is defining…this project is dead.
2015 was supposed to be the year the Sodo Arena ran through all their final approvals, studies and the “Seattle process”. Early in the year, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray would renew his support for the Sodo arena. He would make a visit to New York to meet with Gary Bettman and Adam Silver to give an update on Sodo and pledge support to bring an NHL and/or NBA team to Seattle. Meanwhile, high-level arena proposals would be reported for Tukwila and Bellevue. These new arenas would be noticeably behind in the approval process compared to the Seattle arena, but both municipalities have a quicker approval process, thus giving both locations have a legitimate chance at competing with Sodo. Noticeable progress would be made on the Tukwila option which would start to emerge as a front runner to be the future home of a NHL franchise. Similar to Bellevue ownership group, details on the Bellevue arena option would never emerge. The thought of a Bellevue Arena had Eastsiders salivating and could have been the best unicorn that ever unicorned in this storyline. By year’s end, the Tukwila arena progress would slow and appears to be dying a slow death.
On the Sodo front, the final Environmental Impact Study was published with glowing reviews of public benefit and no material impact to port traffic. The Port of Seattle would continue their anti-Arena campaigning without any supporting evidence. Sodo would obtain necessary approvals from the Design Commission and Mayor Murray would end the year by sending the project to the Seattle City Council for final approval of vacating a side street necessary for the Arena. Although the final approval of the Sodo arena took much longer than expected, it appears it is on the final approach. Once it clears this final political hurdle, unfortunately, the path to build remains muddy without the prospects of either an NBA or NHL team.
Grade: D I respect all the work that was done by Hansen and Bartoszek but like the ownership group, we start 2016 exactly how we started 2015. With a reported 3 different options you would have expected at least one to emerge to be shovel ready or at least have a clear path to completion. It is still not clear how Sodo gets done without an NBA Team coming first and an NBA team seems over 5 years away.
The third pillar to getting a NHL team is actually landing a team. This can be done either through relocation or expansion. People that know me or have followed me long enough know that I have never been a fan of relocation. I believe in this sport too much to concede a market due to an ownership setback or poor performance on the ice. That said, it would be a disservice to ignore the potential of relocation.
Relocation – Entering the year, the public perception was that the Coyotes and the Panthers were potential relocation targets. The Coyotes were mid-way through their second year of 10 year agreement (with an out clause after 5 years). Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers were in the middle of their first full season with their new ownership group headed by Vincent Viola. The Coyotes were making progress on their turnaround, but struggles on the ice would make things tougher to hit the forecasted revenues that would be paid back to the City of Glendale. Although not directly tied to the Glendale revenue shortcomings, the City would cancel their 10-year agreement with the Arizona Coyotes leaving the future of the team in limbo. The city and team would eventually sign a 2 year agreement that would enable the team to continue playing at Gila River Casino Arena. Where the team plays after that remains unclear, but odds are they stay in the desert and play in a new arena in either Scottsdale or downtown Phoenix. Back to Florida, the Panthers ownership group remained committed to staying in South Florida. The group began seeing improvements in attendance and remained committed to building a solid team on the ice. Separately, the Panthers negotiated a new agreement with Broward County that would keep the Panthers in Florida through 2028. The year would end with neither team looking like relocation candidates for the immediate term.
Expansion – They NHL would formally launch an expansion process over the summer. As noted above, the deadline would come and go without a potential Seattle area ownership group applying for expansion. This was the opportunity Seattle was waiting for and by all intents and purposes, ready for. The awarding of expansion franchises has been slower than the public (aka media) expected, leaving some folks to speculate that the NHL is waiting for a group in Seattle to develop a legitimate plan. This seems like a little bit of wishful thinking, but the longer the NHL drags out its decision on expansion, the more opportunity it gives Seattle to get their arena and ownership ducks in a row.
Grade: B+ There are teams (via expansion) available. Has the door shut on Seattle for one of those teams? Maybe, but time will tell.
The NHL to Seattle community had a great year. This scrappy grassroots community continues to evolve, which surprises me every year. We received check-ins from several rinks across the league (and world). The community practically demanded t-shirts and I’ve had to reorder multiple times and have expanded “product lines” based on community interest. We had our first annual playoff viewing party, expanded our opening day challenge, and had our first holiday party.
Grade: A+ I may be biased here, but seeing how this community has grown and evolved since 2012, there is no other grade possible.
We had some rather big expectations but this is tremendously complex. A lot of work has been done to get us to this point and without a viable arena plan, the path to landing a franchise remains unclear. I remain optimistic but I also don’t want people assuming this is going to happen anytime soon. This community has been outstanding and we need to continue to grow to make our voices heard to local politicians, the NHL, and potential owners.