Is NHL expansion to Seattle dead?

LOS ANGELES – Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen had a dream for Seattle sports.

It involved luring an NBA team to a new, state-of-the-art arena. It would then involve bringing an NHL franchise to the city as well, for the first time.

The dream continued when a deal was struck to build an arena in the Sodo area of Seattle. It didn’t waver when the Kings opted to remain in Sacramento rather than relocate. It was nurtured by the NHL’s constant praising of the market as a fertile one for hockey, along with being geographically advantageous.

Then Donald Sterling happened.

The Los Angeles Clippers became available when Sterling was banned from the NBA, and Ballmer couldn’t pass up the chance to bid for them. So the former Microsoft CEO bid $2 billion for the team, which he’ll acquire pending league approval.

They aren’t moving to Seattle. Hence, Ballmer’s role in the dream was over.

The question was whether Seattle’s dream was over too.

From the Seattle Times:

“It would knock the lights out of it,’’ a veteran Seattle politico said Sunday. “There are deep pockets and there are small pockets. It doesn’t take much work to figure out who has the deep pockets and who has the small ones in that partnership.’’

Now, it isn’t automatically a death blow. After all, Hansen first launched his Sodo project well before Ballmer climbed aboard. But there’s a reason Hansen took Ballmer on as his biggest partner in the first place: money talks in pro sports.

And it’s fair to wonder whether Hansen has enough of his own money to go at it without Ballmer. Or whether he’ll again be out working the wealthy side of the street for help.

It was a setback in their pursuit of an NBA team, no doubt. But what about building an arena for an NHL tenant?

The League continues to claim that it isn’t interesting in expanding, but that flies in the face of its own unbalanced realignment: 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West.

Seattle is at the top of the list for expansion, or at least was. Now, that momentum may have hit a wall.

“What we learned is that it’s a very complex situation,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently. “The person that controls the rights to build a building, at least for the next couple of years, is not interested in building a building right now unless he gets an NBA team.”

The NHL has always said a market needs three essential things to have a chance at an expansion team or a relocated team: Strong ownership, a suitable building and that the market fits well within the current geography of the league.

Quebec City, often named as a potential expansion site, has both, in theory, although Bettman admitted their entry into the League would be tricky: “That would cause us to have yet another team in the East.  I'm not even sure how we deal with it.”

Las Vegas will have a building. They have a geographic advantage being in the Southwest. But there isn’t a clear ownership group.

Seattle? Bettman said the city “seems to have the most number of people interested” in owning an NHL team. It’s geographically perfect, giving the Vancouver Canucks a natural rival.

But as he said, “the fact is there's no building that's on the horizon” and “based on what's happened to date and the fact that his partner has now bought a different franchise, I don't know that there's any prospect of a building in Seattle.

It’s all about the building for the NHL now, and whether it can work around the deal Hansen has with the city for the next three years, which doesn’t have an “NHL only” provision for arena funding.

From the Seattle Times, the scenario for the NHL:

Hansen told [KJR host Dave] Mahler he has no plans to personally try to alter the agreement to accommodate an NHL expansion franchise if Seattle was to secure that ahead of any NBA team. But Hansen left the door open to potential NHL owners to try to rework the MOU themselves by providing municipal officials with greater financial guarantees.

“If the city and the NHL and a prospective owner would like to change an MOU that accommodates them and it’s not worse off for us, that’s great,’’ he said.

The big issue, he added, will be finding a way a hockey team can do that without adding more risk to the city’s position. Hansen is known to be talking behind the scenes with a prospective NHL ownership group led by Los Angeles investors Victor Coleman and Jonathan Glasser.

That group and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met last month with Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine to look at making the MOU work for hockey. 

At the Stanley Cup Final in Los Angeles, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly both indicated that Ballmer leaving the ownership group provided some new challenges. But Daly noted that if the Hansen group is unable to rebuild that funding component, it could clear the way for a more hockey-friendly ownership group to get involved in the arena building process.

“I don’t know if [Ballmer leaving] doesn’t necessarily move it in the other direction,” said Daly.

“We need an arena in Seattle. So how do you get the arena? It’s based on who controls the arena opportunity, and that maybe or maybe not can be changed. Maybe hockey becomes a bigger priority with a different ownership group.”

Is the NHL to Seattle dead? No, it’s not. It’s still a market the NHL covets. But the guy holding the keys on the arena the League needs isn’t turning them for a hockey team.

So it’s a matter now of finding a way to get him to use them, or finding a way to take them out of his hands.

“It's nice that there's interest,” said Bettman, “but there's really not a whole lot for us to do with it.”