As I do every year, I give out grades on how we did for the year across the three pillars of landing an NHL franchise, plus I throw in a bonus category of community. The categories are listed in priority order. A strong potential owner is the most important piece because they can influence the other categories.
We entered the year with only small rumblings of Victor Coleman still being involved in bringing the NHL to Seattle. (Victor Coleman first surfaced as a potential owner in May of 2014.) That about sums up where we are today. Victor Coleman has revealed that he is still interested in bringing a team to the Seattle area, but beyond that, we know nothing. The rumor is that Coleman and Hansen are no longer working together, but I‘ve never seen anything confirming that out of either Hansen or Coleman; so let’s just call it a unsubstantiated rumor…but more than likely true. Beyond that, the league has acknowledged that they are in contact with (undisclosed) potential NHL owners in Seattle. The reality is that there is very little incentive for an owner to go public until there is a reason to do so i.e. PR push to influence local municipalities to approve, oh, let’s say a street vacation. The fact that no potential NHL owner was advocating for the Occidental Street vacation makes me think that there is no real prospective NHL owner in on the SoDo project. I’ve heard of another group out there, but I’m not sure if these are early 2015 groups that bailed when the NHL opened up the expansion process back in mid-2015 or maybe a new group tied to the Leiwike-KeyArena remodel. Either way, it’s hard to dispute the old “Big hat, no cattle” reference by Elliott Friedman.
Grade: I (Incomplete) – With literally no (publically disclosed) progress since this time last year, I can’t give this grade anything but an Incomplete. The most discouraging piece of this is that a strong potential owner can influence everything in this entire process. This leaves us very little reason to be optimistic.
At the beginning of 2016, the Sodo arena was slowly marching toward the final stages to be shovel ready. The Final Environmental Impact Statement revealed no material issues and the project received approvals from the Design Commission and the Mayor of Seattle. Street vacations are common. The City has granted 32 street vacations to the Port of Seattle alone. Certainly a glowing FEIS, Design Commission and Mayor approval would certainly make this a slam dunk. As most you know by now, in a stunning blow to Seattle Basketball fans, the street vacation failed by a vote of 4-5. With a M.O.U. (Memorandum of Understand) expiring in less than 18 months and no team in site, the future of the SoDo arena appears in jeopardy. I claimed the Sodo Arena dead shortly after the vote since I saw no clear way how the city council might be convinced to approve the street vacation. In spite of this, the Hansen group appears to be determined to push onward in Sodo. Since the vote, the group has purchased two additional parcels of land, offered to go 100% private financing, and added Russell Wilson as a partner to the group.
None of this has really changed my stance on the prospects in Sodo. The 100% private finance offer to the City is much ado about nothing. The MOU already called for public financing on a condition that an NBA team is acquired. Since the NBA has been fairly clear that an NBA team is not coming to Seattle anytime soon, the project would have already needed to be 100% private. Wilson could help the PR efforts, but it seems a little foolish that a quarterback in the NFL could influence the City Council to approve the street more so than the residents.
Meanwhile, the Mayor acknowledge that he will be opening up the RFP process for a major remodel of the former home of the Seattle Supersonics, KeyArena, that could accommodate the standards of both the NBA and NHL. AEG and the Oakview group have acknowledged that they intend to bid on the RFP. The Oakview group is led by sports executive veteran, Tim Leiweke who back in 2013 while working for Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment said, “NHL has to get into Seattle when its arena built.” It appears he is taking matters into his own hands. The jury is still out if KeyArena could be retrofitted to a level that it could accommodate the NBA and NHL, but Leiweke acknowledged that he has been in contact with both the NBA & NHL on the plans for the KeyArena RFP.
On the positive side, it would appear that the failed street vacation vote could open opportunity for other options, whether it be KeyArena or some other location to be named later. The outcome is anyone’s guess.
Grade D – There are arena options. But after 5 years, Sodo feels dead and KeyArena seems very challenged to put it mildly. I would like to think that the arena options should shakeout in 2017, but I think I’ve been saying that for a couple years.
The NHL awarded an expansion team to Las Vegas in June and declined on Quebec City’s expansion bid. The Las Vegas franchise will begin play in the 2016-17 season, it will create a 31 team league with 16 in the Eastern and 15 in the Western Conference. Although the league will deny they need balance, a 31 team league doesn’t seem complete. Why the league declined Quebec City’s bid is not clear. Several articles referenced the weak Canadian dollar and at one time, Bill Daly referenced the league imbalance. Either way, the league is not going to wait forever on Seattle (or some other western team…i.e. Houston, Portland or Kansas City) and If the Canadian Dollar eventually improves against the US dollar, then Quebec City could be added to the league in short order.
Meanwhile, the future of the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh seems less stable every year which could provide a good solution for Quebec should Peter Karmanos not find a buyer willing to keep the team in Raleigh. Relocation will probably be a last resort considering the efforts the league made in keeping the Coyotes in Arizona.
Grade C – There is clearly a spot available for a 32nd team should an ownership group be able to figure out an arena solution in the Puget Sound. The exact path to getting an expansion team will remain unclear until some ownership group materializes.
First the downside: We’ve become cynical of city politics and alternative arena plans. A good portion of us have lost faith in landing an NHL franchise. Some of us love Sodo and think that Chris Hansen’s plan is the only chance we get while others think that Chris Hansen and is NBA focused Sodo arena are preventing us from landing a franchise. None of us really know what has been communicated between Hansen, the leagues, the city, etc. We are told to trust the process and be patient, but no one speaks to us, the hockey community. The Hansen group’s messaging has include references to landing an NHL team, but they very much speak to the Sonics fans. I get it, the rollercoaster ride has been nauseating and it has challenged our conviction.
Now the positive. This community continues to grow and a lot of us will see this thing through to the end, regardless how frustrated we might get. The NHL to Seattle
community visited 27 out of 30 arena’s last season and we continue to participate in the public hearing process. We also see our USA Hockey numbers in Washington state continue to climb, even when we have a severe shortage of rinks in the area. It is hard to quantify it, but the hockey and NHL fan community is gaining momentum.
Grade B – We are being tested by the process and it has become a challenge to see how an NHL team lands in Seattle. In spite of that, we are gaining momentum and the NHL is becoming a bigger part of the lexicon in the Seattle sports community. We lack the leadership that Hansen, the Nordstroms, and now Russell Wilson provide to the Sonics fans.