Hockey coming to Seattle: NHL awards expansion franchise for 2021 season

Seattle NHL Practice Facility Rendering

The National Hockey League officially approved expansion to Seattle with the awarding of the league's 32nd franchise at a Board of Governors meeting in Sea Island, Ga. on Tuesday morning.

The league voted to approve the expansion franchise by a unanimous 31-0 vote, paving way for the franchise to begin play for the 2021-22 season.

“Today is an exciting and historic day for our League as we expand to one of North America’s most innovative, beautiful and fastest-growing cities,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We are delighted to add David Bonderman, Tod Leiweke and the entire NHL Seattle group to the National Hockey League family. And we are thrilled that Seattle, a city with a proud hockey history that includes being the home for the first American team ever to win the Stanley Cup, is finally joining the NHL.”

The NHL coming to Seattle fills a void in the professional sports landscape left with the departure of the Seattle Supersonics of the National Basketball Association to Oklahoma City in the summer of 2008. The city has been without a major professional sports entity for the winter season ever since.

"A dream comes true tomorrow," NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said in an interview with KJR's Ian Furness on Monday.

"I've known the fans in Seattle. I've worked with the fans. I love the fans in Seattle and they've done it again here," Leiweke added. "The 33,000 (season ticket) depositors on that day, March 1, changed sports history in our town. We really told the story of the fans and really give them credit for this because they're the beginning, middle and the end of this story and the league reacted and how can you not?"

While efforts from multiple groups and at least two stadium ventures attempted to return professional basketball to Seattle over the last decade, it became clear in recent years that the possibility of hockey and the NHL coming to the Pacific Northwest was the more viable short-term possibility.

The NHL has been playing with an odd number of teams, 31, since the Vegas Golden Knights began play last season. A 32nd team would be inevitable at some point, in Seattle or otherwise. But despite a ready made building in Quebec City and other functional buildings in places such as Kansas City or Hamilton, Ontario, the Seattle market was of great interest to the NHL.

The problem was there was nowhere for a team to play until the city of Seattle reached an agreement with the Oak View Group on a renovation of Key Arena last December. The final agreement on the $800 million renovation between the city and Oak View Group was approved by the Seattle City Council in late September.

The team itself will be owned by David Bonderman, movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and other minority owners. The group will pay an expansion fee of $650 million to the NHL for the franchise.

Renovations of KeyArena will not be completed until after the 2020 NHL season is expected to begin, which has pushed the inaugural season for the new franchise to the 2021-22 season instead.

"Either is good with us," Leiweke said Monday of when the team will begin play. "Certainly there's reasons why you would want 2020 but there's a number of compelling reasons for 2021. We get to start the team in our own building. The building won't be a year late. Under that model, we might take a few more additional months to finish off the building, but either one we're good. I think some wise people have said 2021 has quite a few advantages for you guys to get this team in perfect shape, to better scout, to make sure the building is perfect. So we're good either way.

"We would have to, really, have a very precise schedule and there couldn't be any slippage. We do believe that if we played in 2020 we'd have to play the first month is less-than-perfect conditions on the road and (Commissioner) Gary Bettman said 'look, something this great shouldn't start out that way' and that's been his argument, but we'll find out tomorrow."

NHL Seattle announced in October plans to build the NHL Seattle Ice Center at the site of the Northgate Mall, which will house team operations, a practice facility and community ice sheets. The complex will be built on the east side of the mall complex and will consist of three NHL regulation ice rinks with spectator viewing locations and seating for 1,000 fans in the main rink and 400 in the other two rinks. 

The Oak View Group has pledged to try to bring an NBA team back to Seattle as well as soon as possible and Tim Leiweke, Tod's brother, has expressed confidence in their ability to eventually check that box off as well. But the obvious opening for a winter sports team to come to town was with the NHL and that effort has now become a reality.

The Seattle franchise will play in the Pacific division of the NHL with the league undergoing a realignment following expansion. The league will be split into four eight-team division with the Arizona Coyotes moving to the Central division to balance the league.

Seattle will join the Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights, Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in the Pacific division.

"This is an awesome day for Seattle and Seattle sports fans," Leiweke said following the announcement on Tuesday. "We are all anxious for the NHL to arrive and for the return of professional hockey to Seattle. Seattle is one of North America’s great sports towns, and we’re about to become one of its great hockey towns. We are thrilled to be taking this huge step for professional sports in Seattle,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan. “I am grateful to Commissioner Bettman, the NHL Board of Governors, the team at NHL Seattle, and above all, the thousands of hockey fans across Seattle and the Puget Sound who made their voices heard. I hope the Canucks are ready for us.”

Seattle will undergo the same expansion process that the Golden Knights partook in to build their team prior to their 2017 season. The parameters of the expansion process are as follows:

  • The Seattle franchise must select one player from each presently existing club – all except Vegas – for a total of 30 players.
  • The Seattle franchise must select the following number of players at each position: 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders.
  • The Seattle franchise must select a minimum of 20 players who are under contract for the 2021‑22 season.
  • The Seattle franchise must select players with an aggregate Expansion Draft value that is between 60-100 percent of the prior season’s upper limit for the salary cap.
  • The Seattle franchise may not buy out any of the players selected in the Expansion Draft earlier than the summer following its first season.

Additional details of the expansion process and the rest of the league's ability to protect their own players are detailed in the league's press release of the expansion to Seattle.

The Seattle Metropolitans served as the city's first professional hockey team, playing from 1915 to 1924. The team won the Stanley Cup in 1917 as the Pacific Coast Hockey Association team defeated the National Hockey Association's Montreal Canadiens three games to one, becoming the first American team to win the Stanley Cup. 

The National Hockey Association would became the National Hockey League the following season.

The yet-to-be-named Seattle hockey franchise will become the first top-tier professional hockey team in the city since the Metropolitans folded in 1924 when they begin play in 2021.

"We're at base camp. Now we got to climb this mountain and the summit is bringing the Stanley Cup back to Seattle and we're going to try and do that," Leiweke said. 

Photo Credit: A visual rendering of the proposed NHL practice facility, offices and community ice center set to be built at the Northgate Mall complex to house the Seattle hockey operations. (courtesy of NHL Seattle)

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