NHL expansion or relocation to Seattle becoming more realistic

It was a decade ago that the SuperSonics limped into their final season in Seattle. After a miserable 2007-08 campaign, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sold the team and its new prize, Kevin Durant, to a group of businessmen from Oklahoma City, and the Sonics became the Thunder. 

Now, after years of speculation and failed proposals, Seattle has a timeline for the possible return of the NBA — and a brand new expansion into the NHL. On Monday, it was announced that Oak View Group (OVG), led by former Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiwike, and the city have reached an agreement to renovate KeyArena and have it suitable for professional sports by as early as 2020

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will be proposed to Seattle’s City Council on Tuesday, though voting will not formally take place until December. OVG’s proposal is a $600 million renovation project to the city-operated KeyArena, which opened in 1962. KeyArena used to house the Sonics, and is currently home to the Seattle Storm of the WNBA and is a major location in the city of concerts and other events.

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OVG has proposed to commit $40 million to transportation upgrades around City Centre, $20 in a community fund, and the cost of the project in total. After the renovations are complete, OVG would also be on the hook for $168 million in capital investment upgrades over the 55-year lease of the building.

According to Leiweke, a major goal of the MOU was to let the NHL and NBA know that Seattle was serious about actually getting something done.

“I think the most important part of this MOU is the fact it states very clearly to the leagues that this project is going to happen, we do have a deal with the city, they can make a deal,” Leiweke said. “But more importantly it sends a very strong message now to the NBA and to the NHL that everyone worried about, ‘Yeah will it ever get done with the city? Will they ever be able to get to the finish line? Will you ever possibly get this deal done within the politics of Seattle and the Seattle process as everyone likes to call it?

“Guess what? Game, set and match. We clearly send a message to everyone that this will get done, this will get built and we are ready now to go get one and hopefully soon, two teams.”

Throughout the process of bringing the Sonics back to Seattle, local hedge fund manager Chris Hansen spearheaded multiple proposals for the development of a new arena in the city’s SoDo district, which is where SafeCo Field and the MLB’s Mariners are located.

Hansen had proposed to entirely fund a stadium project in SoDo, which was attractive to Seattle residents because a renovated KeyArena would massively increase traffic and congestion downtown. That said, the city has always seemed to be attracted to a KeyArena renovation because the construction of another facility, among other things, would leave an expensive white elephant in the middle of the city.

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Whether or not this results in the return of the Sonics is up in the air (and isn’t really of interest to the reads of this site so I won’t dive into further detail), but the project seems nearly certain to bring the NHL to Seattle. David Bonderman, a businessman who attended the University of Washington, has reportedly committed money into the building project and appears to be the front-runner for NHL ownership. You might recognize Bonderman’s name from a decade ago when he and a partner tried to pursue NHL expansion into Las Vegas.

The timeline of the arena’s completion is also of interest. The goal of being ready by October 2020 perfectly matches up with the end of the NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement. The NHLPA has an opt-out clause on Sept. 19th, 2019, meaning there’s potential for another lockout in 2019-20. When the Golden Knights joined the league, ownership cut the league a cheque for $500 million. Another substantial fee being spread around the league’s 30 owners would certainly mitigate the cost of missing, say, half a season again, especially if it resulted in a more favourable CBA for the owners.

That lockout bit, of course, is simply speculation on my part and a little bit of cynicism having lived through three lockouts. Regardless, it could come through expansion or it could be through relocation, but it appears the NHL is Seattle is becoming closer and closer to reality, which is a very exciting prospect for the growth of the sport.

    • MillHoodsHockey4Life

      But does that mean that Calgary and Edmonton shift to the Central or does Vegas and Arizona? You wouldn’t put Seattle in the Central (NHLHQ might re:Jets) but an east/west split is 9/7; does the league look at a north/south split leaving Avs or Blues as swing teams?

      • Cam Lewis

        I would guess Vegas? It can’t be any of the California or Canada teams, and I imagine they want to keep the Canadian teams and Arizona together for the sake of the snow birds.

        • Serious Gord

          Snowbirds aren’t going to solve AZ problem- only a new Arena in Scottsdale.

          It would be better for AZ to build rivalry with LV and Pacific American cities who are their natural rivals.

      • Serious Gord

        Look at it from a timezone and proximity perspective

        Van, Seattle San Jose Ana LA AZ LV and CO.

        Move EDM and cgy to the central.

        They league would LOVE more EDM games with mcdavid playing in central timezone.

  • Great sports city with a viable and strong list of Fortune 500 companies to align co-branding opportunities with. Ancillary bonus for one Calgary Flames franchise and one YYC public election taking place…… LEVERAGE on a new barn.

    ~i wonder if the Flames brass are aware~

  • Explicit

    i think Quebec needs to get back first, but Seattle would be an awesome spot for a team. Any worries that the league would get too waterd down with another expansion team tho?

  • madjam

    Why would Seattle put so much money (closer to 800 M Canadian ) into a building they rejected back in 2004 – because of conjestion and lack of space to add restaurants , etc . like Edmonton has/had ? Sodo in an new area turned down , so they have gone back to what they rejected several years ago with same problems to overcome . Glad it is their problem and not ours . Calgary better set up than Seattle to find a new arena and space to built and compliment the arena , even though they have yet to name a site .

    • howeandhowe

      There are many reasons this location is back in play. There is an existing stadium. The other location is being fought, with a lot of success, by the Port Authority. The neighborhood of Key Arena has also grown tremendously since 2004. It now have 4-5 times the local businesses including dozens of new restaurants and a world class radio station that attracts music lovers of all genres to this area for concerts at Key Area as well as free, “in studio” performances. The area has a successful opera house that has opened after 2004 to go along with weekly festivals that occur at the adjacent public area drawing thousands of people. The residential population has probably tripled since 2004 meaning many fans can walk to games. Complimenting Key Arena is not a problem at all. The location is a no brainer.

  • PDX Tier 2 Fan

    For the Vegas expansion draft, Oilers got off easy, losing a player who wouldn’t have even been a regular next year anyway. I fear that they will lose a more critical player in a 2020 expansion draft.

  • Serious Gord

    The key arena location is a lot less problematic with the advent of uber/lyft. My guess is a lot of people would consider parking remotely (even the parking around safeco?) and ubering it.

    Seattle is a basketball town third and hockey a very distant fourth. So getting a firm ownership commitment from the bball team is critical to moving the arena forward. I’m not sure how keen the basketball guys are about sharing ‘ownership’ with the hockey team.

    That noted both the nba and the NHL have long wanted to be in Seattle and that does count for something.

    Now if only Vancouver could get the grizzlys back…

    • howeandhowe

      I think it’s hard to say hockey is a distant forth, but I get where you are coming from. When I think of hockey in Seattle, it’s hard not to think of how the city embraced the Sounders. People took to it like bees to a picnic and they have never left it. I’m sure that the team’s early success had a lot to do with that. The MLS, and soccer in general, is better suited for expansion because it has a larger pool of players to draw from where as hockey does not and the NHL is not know for having new teams find success right away (like what happened with the Sounders).

  • howeandhowe

    As someone from Seattle, I’d like to chime in on this.

    I understand that there is a lot of love for Quebec. It has a history with the NHL and more than Seattle does (which it has – but none of us likely were around for it). IMO, seeing how Seattle embraced it’s MLS team from day one and having been to a handful of Thunderbird games seeing packed areas there is a lot of love for athletics here. Granted, the MLS team benefited from having hometown and World Cup hero Casey Keller to bring people in, the attendance has never really let down since his retirement 3 years ago. In fact, I think they lead the league in attendance almost every year since they joined (I’m not really a fan because the MLS game is not really that good). So, I don’t think Seattle will have any trouble filling a smaller NHL arena.

    It’s a bit ironic that this article comes out today because the Mayor, who supports this project, also resigns today. In two months Seattle will have a new mayor and it is doubtful that either candidate will support a hockey franchise during their service. While things are looking up for this project this morning, but the end of the day it might be dead.