The NHL Board of Governors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the expansion application from the NHL Seattle group to bring the yet-to-be named team into the League for the start of the 2021-22 season.
“Today is a day for celebration in a great city that adores and avidly supports its sports teams and for our 101-year-old sports league,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The Board of Governors also approved a realignment plan that will move the Arizona Coyotes into the Central Division, making way for Seattle to play in the Pacific Division.
There are currently eight teams in the Pacific Division and seven in the Central Division; The Coyotes will remain in the Pacific until the 2021-22 season.
“Expanding to Seattle makes the National Hockey League more balanced, even more whole and even more vibrant,” Commissioner Bettman said. “A team in Seattle evens the number of teams in our two conferences, brings our geographic footprint into greater equilibrium and creates instant new rivalries out west, particularly between Seattle and Vancouver.”
Seattle’s ownership group, led by David Bonderman, a private equity CEO, will pay a $650 million expansion fee, which is $150 million more than Bill Foley and his group paid to bring the Vegas Golden Knights into the NHL for the 2017-18 season.
“I love Seattle,” Bonderman said. “I went to school here, graduated from the [University of Washington]. … I worked on the Space Needle in 1962. So, what goes around comes around. Seattle is one of my favorite cities and it’s a pleasure to be here. If it was someplace else, I wouldn’t have done it.”
The Seattle team will play at Seattle Center Arena, the former KeyArena.
The Seattle ownership group will break ground on a privately financed $800 million renovation of the arena Wednesday, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said.
The renovation project was awaiting NHL approval of the expansion team before it could begin.
“We believe it’ll be one of the finest arenas in the world,” Leiweke said.
The capacity for an NHL game at Seattle Center Arena will be approximately 17,400.
KeyArena opened in 1962 and was the home of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics from 1967-78 and 1985-2008 prior to them relocating to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season.
The ownership group is also scheduled to pay approximately $75 million to build a 180,000-square foot practice facility with three ice sheets in Northgate, a shopping area north of the city.
“Sixteen years ago, they started saying the arena didn’t work,” Leiweke said. “Over the course of that time we lost an NBA team. We’re not even close to where we should be relative to concerts. How can a world-class city like Seattle not have a world-class arena? Tomorrow, we break ground and we solve that issue. Tomorrow, we start building our team, and it’s really exciting.”
The Seattle ownership group was hopeful to have the 2020-21 season be its inaugural season but beginning in the 2021-22 season allows for full completion of the renovations to Seattle Center Arena and the training facility with time to spare.
Leiweke said the Seattle expansion draft will be held at Seattle Center Arena. Commissioner Bettman said that would take place in June 2021 and the rules in place for the Vegas expansion draft in June 2017 will be the same for Seattle. The Golden Knights will be exempt from exposing players for the draft.
The arena will likely open in March or April 2021 with concerts, Leiweke said. The Seattle Storm of the WNBA will play their 2021 schedule in the renovated arena.
“We realized that perhaps we wouldn’t open the season with our fans in our new building, perhaps the training center wouldn’t be ready,” Leiweke said. “Now, an expansion draft will be held in our building. Our players can skate at that training center in time for our first camp, and we know opening day will be truly spectacular. So, waiting a little longer seemed to make a lot of sense and we ultimately agreed with the League.”
Leiweke said the ownership group will use the extra time it has to do its due diligence before it announces a team name.
“We’re going to get it right,” he said. “Getting it right means that you make sure that all your partners feel good and ultimately the fans feel good and ultimately you’ve created a brand that can not only stand the test of time in Seattle but has a chance to be a global brand.”
Leiweke didn’t outline a timeline for when Seattle will start building its hockey operations staff but left open the possibility that it could be soon.
“There is certainly one model where you can bring on staff earlier, and I think ownership has proven they’re willing to make investment,” he said. “So, we’re going to make the best use of this time. And ultimately, for our fans, this will be a good thing. Not only will the building be on time, but we’re going to be really sharp on the hockey side of things as well.”
The geographic rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks is another element of the expansion to Seattle that was so enticing for the League.
Commissioner Bettman said Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini has mentioned to him many times how impactful a geographic rivalry with Seattle will be for Vancouver.
“Seattle is a great sports city and we can’t wait to ignite a true regional rivalry west of the Rockies for Canucks fans,” Aquilini said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Leiweke’s words to Vancouver were, “bring it on.”
The NHL first authorized the Seattle ownership group to file an application for an expansion team at the Board of Governors meeting in Manalapan, Florida, last year.
A season-ticket deposit drive was held in Seattle on March 1, securing 10,000 deposits in the first 12 minutes and 32,000 in the first 31 hours. There is a waiting list with approximately 10,000 names on it.
The NHL Seattle group presented its plan for the expansion team to the Board’s executive committee at its meeting in New York on Oct. 2. The executive committee gave a report in the full Board meeting Tuesday prior to holding the vote to approve the application.
Although Seattle has never had an NHL team, the Seattle Metropolitans, who played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association from 1915-24, won the Stanley Cup in 1917, defeating the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in a best-of-5 series.
“Expansion, particularly a second expansion in three years, could only have even been considered and ultimately approved by our Board because our league is stronger and more stable than it has ever been,” Commissioner Bettman said. “Our game is more exciting, entertaining and competitive than ever, and the pool of talented players is deeper and wider than ever.”