By Andy Eide
SEATTLE — Usually, you kick the tires before making the purchase but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Seattle Wednesday to do just that on the newly minted NHL franchise.
“The tires are in great shape,” Bettman declared.
It’s been just over a month since Bettman and the NHL awarded the league’s 32nd franchise to Seattle and the Commissioner was in town to meet with the team, see the sites and meet with key business partners as well as select season ticket depositors.
Sitting on a make shift stage, half way up the Space Needle, with NHL Seattle’s Tod Leiweke and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Bettman began the proceedings saying he wasn’t there to break any news but to talk to the local media and to help build up some more excitement and momentum towards the soon to be hockey franchise.
“We’re here to support the franchise but ultimately the enthusiasm is going to come from within,” Bettman added. “As the building continues to progress and as the organization continues to build and get more involved in the community I have no doubt there’ll be events that you put on in a regular basis and there will be frenzy of what the name is going to be. The period of time between now and dropping the puck on opening night in ’21 is going to go a lot faster than people imagine.”
Despite the claim of no breaking news, Bettman and Leiweke did drop a few newsy nuggets.
Most notably, Bettman committed to awarding Seattle an NHL All-Star game as well as hosting the NHL Draft. He said that both would happen within seven years of the team’s inaugural season and that perhaps the draft would come first.
The name of the Seattle franchise has been a hotly debated topic on message boards and social media outlets throughout the hockey and local sports community. Predictably, Bettman was asked a number of questions regarding the team name.
He joked that he didn’t have to name it but that he would get to approve the name.
Leiweke provided some details regarding the name and logo timeline and said that it would happen at some point in 2019. He added that the process would begin shortly.
“In about 60 days we’re going to roll out a very special portal just for the depositors,” Leiweke said. “We’re going to have them weigh in on all sorts of things. If I have my way, their fingerprints are going to be all over this franchise. Certainly team name, but they’re going to help us build this.”
Bettman was asked his feelings about a number of names and declined to throw his support behind any of them.
However, he did shed some light on whether or not the name ‘Metropolitans’ would be a possibility. The name stems from the Seattle Metropolitans, who were the first U.S. based franchise to win the Stanley Cup, which they did in 1917, and there has been a growing set of fans clamoring for that to be the new team’s name as well.
The NHL has a division that shares the same name, which might make naming the team ‘Metropolitans’ a nonstarter. Bettman hinted that it could be off the table.
“Viscerally yes, but I never say ‘never’,” Bettman said about ‘Metropolitans’.
When the NHL decided to move the start date of the Seattle franchise from the proposed 2020 to 2021, one concern was of a possible work stoppage in 2020. The NHL, and Bettman, has a long and consistent track record of struggling to renegotiate the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players union.
Work stoppages and lock outs have become almost the expectation, but Bettman is optimistic that won’t happen in 2020.
“Either side can open by ’20…so it’s not imminent,” he said about the possibility. “I’m not in favor of having a difficult negotiation. I hope that we can extend and renew with minimum fanfare. I’m not a fan of work stoppages, although, we do have to have a system that works and keeps the game healthy and vibrant, and entertaining as it is now. So, we’ll see what happens but I’m not looking for a fight.”
As has become the norm among the non-hockey media in Seattle, the specter of the NBA came up during the press conference.
Bettman was asked his thoughts on sharing the market with basketball and if he had ever discussed the city with former NBA commissioner David Stern, for whom Bettman once worked.
He said that he never had any conversations with Stern about Seattle and, to what should be the delight of area hockey fans, wasn’t concerned or interested in getting too deep into the basketball conversation.
“I’m not an expert on what transpired and I don’t see any reason to go there,” Bettman said. “We’re thrilled to be coming here. We think Seattle is great and what ever happened in prior sports, with prior teams, as far as I’m concerned is water under the bridge. It’s not anything that I focus on or is a concern to us.”
Seattle’s entry to the league comes at a good time.
The game is entering what feels like a golden era with a number of highly skilled players that are performing in an entertaining way. By adding Vegas last year and now Seattle in 2021, is there a concern about the talent pool becoming watered down and affecting the current entertainment value the sport provides?
“None,” Bettman said with confidence. “In fact, I think half the players in the league now are under the age of 25, 20 of the top 22 scorers are 23 and younger. We are blessed with perhaps the deepest talent pool we’ve ever had. We have a worldwide talent pool. Somewhere in the mid-40’s percentage come from Canada, 28-percent from the U.S. and 28-percent from Europe and Russia.
“We’re the best hockey league in the world. The best players in hockey, in the world come play in our league so we don’t have a shortage of talent. Watch the games.”
Wednesday was just the first of what will surely be more regular visits to Seattle for Bettman. He, along with Daly and Leiweke, reinforced the message of wanting to grow the game in the city and the region. Bettman was excited about the designs for both the arena and the practice facility.
The league is already in on Seattle and Wednesday felt like Bettman was more convinced than ever that Seattle will make a great hockey market.
“This is a great sports town,” he added. “This is a place that we’ve had our eyes on for years and years and years. The problem was there was no place for us to play. Lots of people came to us with notions and ideas about a building but none of those buildings ever materialized. With OVG and Tod’s brother and David Bonderman and now Tod, the vision with the reality of having a building that was actually going to happen made this possible.
“Everything that has transpired has not only lived up to expectations, but has exceeded our expectations…This is going to be great not just for the city of Seattle but for the NHL as well.”