This is the first in a two-part series with Seattle Hockey Partners CEO Tod Leiweke. In this first piece we look at his hockey background and overall passion for the sport.
Since joining the effort to bring the NHL to Seattle this past April, Tod Leiweke has been a busy guy. He’s appeared at big press events, done television interviews, radio shows and just last week, a Seattle City Council meeting. It’s been a politician-like schedule and the message from the new Seattle Hockey Partners CEO has always stayed on point. He speaks positively about the effort for a new Seattle Center Arena and bringing a franchise to the Northwest.
But, if you really want to get Leiweke talking, ask him about the game of hockey itself.
“The game is beautiful,” he says. “It has speed and grace and finesse, physicality. There’s drama and the ice tilts, there’s momentum. The blade is incredible, it is wrought, teams feeling it lean in and they’re faster.”
Building a franchise here in Seattle is more than just a new job for Leiweke, who’s had a remarkable career in professional sports. He’s been with the NFL at the league office and with the Seattle Seahawks. He also helped get the Seattle Sounders off the ground, but hockey is where he has the most experience.
He worked for the Vancouver Canucks and speaks with great regard for former Canucks coach and general manager Pat Quinn – who used to lovingly refer to Leiweke as the ‘marketing puke’. He was president of the expansion Minnesota Wild and most recently was the top guy with the Tampa Bay Lightning, helping them reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
Hockey is in his blood. It’s not just the game itself, it’s the people involved in it.
“Hockey is a sport of great people,” Leiweke says. “It’s a sport of great tradition, it’s truly an international sport. There are seven franchises in Canada, all of which will come here. Players from all over the world, it’s a great, great sport. I’ve never met a bad guy around the game, it just seems to create good people.”
Hockey fans know how rough and gritty the game can be. It’s one of the draws. It takes a team of four lines and one player, no matter how good he is, can’t do it alone — just ask fans of the Edmonton Oilers.
Leiweke acknowledges that, and admires the people who play the sport at the highest level.
“The journey they go through to get to the NHL is as arduous as there is in any sport,” he says. “Players in the first round often go back and ride buses again. That journey of riding buses and teamwork and the hard games. Practice at odd hours, it’s not a sport where great players are coddled.
“So by the time they pull on the NHL sweater they’re really shaped in great ways and they’re a joy to be around. They’re a joy to work with and a joy to represent your community and I can’t wait to see them here.”
His passion for the sport began as a kid, in St. Louis, rooting for the Blues.
“Hockey in St. Louis is the real deal,” he says. “Now kids who are playing there make it in the NHL and make it on the Olympic team and it’s really awesome.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Leiweke and his brother, Tim, went to games during the 1970 Stanley Cup Final. The Blues would lose that series to the Boston Bruins, on the famous flying Bobby Orr goal, but it had a lasting impression. St. Louis is also where he learned to skate and play the game, something he still does today.
The love he has for the sport, honed during that time, is something that he is confident can happen for new fans here in Seattle.
“It’s this beautiful game,” Leiweke adds. “I am supremely confident that this will work at the highest level here. We have to get a team first, but I don’t have one moment of concern as to whether or not hockey will succeed here. I think it’s a psychographic fit here, it’s a demographic fit and that’s going to be a thrilling thing.”
As a non-traditional market, hockey will be new to a lot of folks in Seattle. Leweike has been through that education process in the past.
Working for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Leiweke has experience in running a team in a non-traditional hockey market. When he arrived in Florida, the Lightning had been in a rut. The team hadn’t been winning and things were looking dire.
“It was harder than expansion,” he says. “The building was broken; the fans were disillusioned. Outsiders were coming into the community, so we were really up against it. We had a fabulous owner, Jeff Vinik, just believed in hiring the right people and gave us the authority to make it work.”
Ultimately it did work and Tampa Bay is an NHL success story now.
Leiweke says that the turnaround in Tampa Bay was one of the hardest things he’s done, and yet one of the best things he’s been a part of. He’s quick to point out the quality people that he worked with while with the Lightning, first and foremost of which was the now former General Manager, Steve Yzerman.
The two joined the club within months of each other and would end up building a Stanley Cup contender together.
“To watch him methodically build the team, and he wasn’t a seasoned general manager, but what he called upon was all the winning pedigree and being in a winning environment,” Leiweke says of Yzerman. “He taught me so much. And you know, we did things together, but I think I was the beneficiary in the relationship. The day we play the Lightning I’m going to have to take a long walk around Seattle Center to adjust my feelings because I feel so strongly about him.”
Hiring the right people is something that Leiweke says is also going to be vital to success here in Seattle.
The group has started that process by bringing in Dave Tippett as a senior advisor, and once they are awarded a franchise officially, will begin to look at adding more staff.
“The people that join us are all going to have credentials of having done extraordinary things in their life,” Leiweke says. “How do you take the lessons of that? Dave Tippett, he’s extraordinary, his background is captaining an Olympic team at a young age. And playing on a national championship at UND, and playing in the NHL and coaching two teams, and a Jack Adams award winner.
“This is a guy with a lot of championship experience in his life, and how do you pass that on? There will be others.”
Building a team from the ground up can be a monumental task, but Leiweke has also been through those expansion trials before.
As president of the Minnesota Wild, he was there when they opened up their franchise in 1999. He remembers watching the Wild’s first home game, which ended in a 3-3 tie with the Philadelphia Flyers.
As memorable as that was, Leiweke tries not to day dream too much about the first game in a new Seattle Center Arena because he doesn’t want to put the horse before the proverbial cart.
“No, nope,” he says quickly when asked about the first Seattle home game. “I respond pretty quickly because I think there is so much work to do to get to that point. And the work is hard work and there’s a lot of stuff we have to pull off before we get to the point of thinking about that.
“That’s the goal, but to jump ahead to think about that just doesn’t feel right. It’s more, what are we going to do tomorrow? How do we pull off the training center? We’re not a franchise yet, as we get closer we’ll start dreaming about that opening night.”
Leiweke and company have overcome some of the hurdles towards expansion already. They’ve added local investors and they are one vote away from securing an agreement to remodel Key Arena. That vote will happen on Sept. 24th and then it is off to New York and a presentation with the NHL’s Executive Committee.
After that, we will have to wait until the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in December for an official announcement.
The passion for Seattle and, most importantly, the sport of hockey is obvious when talking to Leiweke. His enthusiasm is infectious and it is his enthusiasm, history, and love of hockey that ultimately may just carry the day in New York.
After that, the day dreaming of opening night can start to feel more like a reality.
“That opening night (in Minnesota) was magical and ours will be magical,” Leiweke says. “Having done that, I know what that is. It’s an unbelievable moment. I ‘m a little older, more emotional, I’ll cry like a baby that night.”