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Pacific Northwait: The story of Seattle's first – and failed – foray into NHL expansion

Seattle will become the NHL’s 32nd team. It could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened nearly 50 years ago.

When the NHL revealed the hockey world’s worst-kept secret and announced it would be expanding to Seattle, the only disappointment was the league’s 32nd team wouldn’t begin play until 2021 instead of hitting the ice in the fall of 2020. But when you’ve endured the longest expansion gestation period ever, what’s another year? The NHL and Seattle had been doing this dance for the better part of 50 years before finally deciding to get together.

As eminent hockey executive _ recalls, it goes back to the NHL’s original plan to expand from six to 12 teams in 1967. There were howls of outrage the league would double its size without including Vancouver. But the good people of Vancouver were told they would be taken care of, which they were when the Canucks were granted admission in time for 1970-71. Costello, who went on to become president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association/Hockey Canada and forge a Hall of Fame career, was an executive with the Seattle Totems, who played with the Canucks in the old Western League. Once Costello and Totems GM Bill MacFarland found out the NHL had plans for Vancouver, they went to work. And they had some momentum behind them. The Totems had won back-to-back league titles in 1967 and ’68 and had a long history of pro hockey, starting with the Seattle Metropolitans, the first U.S.-based team to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, they thought with their proximity to Vancouver, they would be a shoo-in. The World’s Fair had been held in Seattle in 1962, leaving behind an arena that held 12,300 for hockey. That arena later became the KeyArena, which will receive $700 million in upgrades for the new NHL team. “We thought, ‘Sh--, we’re naturals to be there with (Vancouver),” said Costello, now 84. “We thought they couldn’t possibly put one team in the northwest without having, for scheduling purposes, another team as close by as they could, and there was nowhere more natural than Seattle. We could have been the first major-league team in Seattle, even before the Seattle Supersonics came in.”

But raising money for upgrades to the arena and to pay the $6-million expansion fee – about $39 million in today’s dollars, a far cry from the $650 million they’ve been charged this time around – proved to be difficult. Costello and MacFarland approached the Boeing family and were rebuffed, as they were by the owners of Nordstrom, a chain of luxury department stores that was established and headquartered in Seattle. “We couldn’t get anybody to commit to it in a way to fulfill the dollar commitment, which I think was only a couple of million to show you’d be able to handle it,” Costello said. “So it fizzled.”

And with it went the Totems, who later became the Canucks’ farm team before the old WHL folded in 1974. It was around that time Seattle was awarded an NHL expansion franchise that would have started playing in 1976-77. The franchise fee was still $6 million, but the financial commitment was not there and after missing several deadlines for payments to the NHL, Seattle had its franchise revoked. Meanwhile, it could have entered the fledgling World Hockey Association for just $2 million, which might have ultimately been a conduit to joining the NHL when the leagues merged in 1979, but didn’t. It also missed out on getting the Pittsburgh Penguins when they were sold in a bankruptcy auction in 1975.

Seattle went on to become a strong major junior market in the development version of the WHL and had always been a contender for an NHL franchise, but the lack of willingness to build a suitable rink was always the biggest stumbling block. When the NHL opened a bidding process in 2016 that resulted in the Vegas Golden Knights gaining entrance, commissioner Gary Bettman expressed his public frustration over the fact Seattle did not make a bid, something that transpired because plans to either build a new rink or refurbish KeyArena were not firmly in place.

After a number of stops and starts, Seattle city council approved funding for the $700 million in renovations and chose the Oak View Group as the developer, which paved the way for David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer to apply for a franchise and finally bring the NHL to Seattle. And it received a hearty endorsement from the man who tried to do the same thing a half century ago. “I have every reason to believe it will be a good franchise because there’s a good hockey base and it’s a high-income city,” Costello said. “But I can’t in my mind believe you pay $650 million to get in and you have to do another $700-million upgrade on the old building. Boy, that’s an awful lot of input to get the team going. The hockey fans we had were very loyal and rabid fans. I think it will be a good franchise and a good addition to the league.”

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