Seattle's NHL expansion bid creates bigger buzz than Vegas


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Alex Ovechkin on March 12 became the 20th NHL player to net 600 goals.
USA TODAY Sports

When Seattle Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Marilyn Strickland saw a 20-by-20 NHL flag raised atop the city’s iconic Space Needle, she viewed it as the sign that there’s a new game in town.

“There’s a buzz,” Strickland said. “When you say, ‘25,000 season-ticket deposits (sold) in one hour,’ people talk about that. There’s a civic pride and an enthusiasm. … People may not necessarily be hardcore fans of the sport, but they want to be caught up in the event.”

The NHL is still reviewing Seattle’s expansion application, but it would be hard to say no to a city that had deposits on 10,000 season tickets in the first 12 minutes on March 1. Sales were cut off at 32,000. It’s still undetermined how many season tickets will be issued, but the ownership group has committed to giving at least some tickets to all 32,000.

“I can remember trying to get 12,000 season tickets (as an expansion team) 20 years ago, and that was hard,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. “Seattle feels like they could be sold out on day one and for the foreseeable future. It’s unreal.”

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The Vegas Golden Knights, considered an expansion success story, needed two days to reach 5,000 tickets and a month to reach 9.000.

“Hockey is bigger (in Seattle) than people think,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, which submitted the application. “It has two junior teams with the Everett Silvertips and the Seattle Thunderbirds.”

The NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City before the 2008-09 season and there has been a void in winter sports since.

“The Northwest is a very big territory,” Leiweke said. “When you look at Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho. You combine all of those eyeballs that’s an enormous part of the country without a hockey team to root for.”

Almost 1,000 season tickets were purchased by Canadians, according to Leiweke. Some Alaskans bought tickets, and some ticket buyers were from Oregon. The vast majority were from Washington.

“And it’s amazing how many people have reached out to me now that the ticket sales are closed, and saying ‘Can you help me?’ ” Leiweke said.

John Jansen, 49, a Seattle-area NHL fan, has been driving three hours a couple times every season to watch games in Vancouver.

“It’s really annoying,” Jansen said. “I want to be able to drive a half hour and now I will be able to.”

He put together a group of nine couples who made deposits on six seats. He was online at 10 a.m. when sales started and will be 94th in line when it comes to picking out his seats.

“I am impressed by how passionate and excited many people from many walks are about this,” Jansen said.

Jansen said Seattle fans have been following the expansion process for a few years, and have been encouraged by the Golden Knights’ success this season. It undoubtedly helped Seattle ticket sales that Vegas is one of the NHL’s best teams in its first season.

“In my circle of friends, we thought we were going to be more seriously considered when Vegas got that team,” Jansen said. “So I can feel like oh, man we could have that team.”

The NHL gave the Golden Knights the most favorable expansion draft setup in league history and the Seattle franchise will receive the same setup.

“It was a great move by the NHL to this way to give an expansion team a chance. It was a great lesson for all sports,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said.

More: Golden Knights’ rise tied to taking Marc-Andre Fleury

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Said Jansen: “Our expectations are very high for the Seattle team.”

The NHL has plenty of reasons to want to go to Seattle, including its ranking as the USA’s 14th largest television market and its proximity to Vancouver.

“This is one of the fastest-growing regions in the entire country,” Strickland said.

This market is bigger than the NHL markets of Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and St. Louis.

It also seems likely that a Seattle-Vancouver rivalry would be strong, particularly once they have played some playoff series.

Adding Seattle would re-balance the NHL with 16 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the Eastern Conference, but the league would have move a team from the current eight-team Pacific Division to the Central Division, which has seven. It’s also possible the league could have another realignment.

Also, Seattle has an attractive ownership group with Leiweke, a former executive with the Los Angeles Kings, movie/television producer Jerry Bruckheimer and billionaire banker David Bonderman.

Bruckheimer, who plays in a celebrity hockey league in Los Angeles, has long flirted with NHL ownership and is well-liked in the NHL community.

The Seattle group isn’t close to starting a naming process, but it hasn’t stopped fans from debating the choices on social media.

“I love the name Kraken, the mythical sea monster that comes out of the Puget Sound,” Jansen said. “But a lot of people on my feed have talked about Orcas or Killer Whales.”

According to Bovada oddsmakers, the name Emeralds is the favorite at 7/2. The Totems comes in at 6/1, Kraken 13/2, Raniers 15/2 and Renegades and Sea Lions are at 8/1.

The Seattle will pay $650 million for its franchise if it is granted, up from the $500 million that Vegas paid.

“Things are going great now in hockey,” Poile said. “We are a hot sport now.”

Leiweke said his group isn’t going to get ahead of itself.  He said there’s work to be done to prove to the NHL everything is in place.

The biggest issue in Seattle has always been Key Arena, which was not built for hockey. It is scheduled for a major renovation to fit NHL standards.

“We have some hurdles to clear with them,” Leiweke said. “By no means do we think this is a done deal.”

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