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NHL could be looking at team in Seattle after KeyArena renovation deal

Seattle City Council approved a $600-million renovation of KeyArena, and it might only be a matter of time before the NHL shows up with a team now that there's an arena deal in place.

The shine hasn’t yet worn off the NHL’s newest toy, the Vegas Golden Knights, but after overwhelming approval by Seattle City Council of a $600-million renovation to the existing KeyArena, it appears the league could be putting down roots in a new city in the near future.

On Monday, by a vote of 7-1, Seattle City Council green-lit a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and Oak View Group, an organization co-founded by Tim Leiweke, who was formerly the president and chief executive officer of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings, and operated in the same roles with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment from August 2013 until October 2015. And the MOU has finally given some clarity to an arena situation that has been watched, and watched closely, by those who believe Seattle is next up on the NHL’s docket after expanding to Las Vegas ahead of the 2017-18 campaign. 

The $600-million project, which, according to the Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker, hasn’t yet been signed off on (but is expected to be) by Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, will go towards renovating and upgrading the 55-year-old KeyArena. The arena, which first opened its doors in April 1962, currently plays host to the NCAA’s Seattle Redhawks and WNBA’s Seattle Storm, but hasn’t had a permanent major league tenant since the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics left the city following the 2007-08 season. Updating the arena, which presently has a capacity of roughly 15,000 for hockey, could be the last hurdle when it comes to bringing professional sports back to the city.

In fact, according to Baker, the NHL could be making an announcement about plans for Seattle in the coming months. Baker wrote Monday that such an announcement could be “regarding the addition of either an expansion or a relocated team” to Seattle, while King5’s Chris Daniels reported there is “widespread belief” that Oak View Group will attempt to bring a team to the arena, noting that Boston Bruins owner and chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors, Jeremy Jacobs, is “an identified partner” of the group. However, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun noted that, as of Monday, the Seattle arena deal and any potential relocation or expansion talks weren’t officially on the docket for the NHL board of governors' meetings later this week.

That there has been considerable speculation about the NHL landing in Seattle is no surprise, of course. During the recent expansion process which wrought the Golden Knights, a process that began in earnest when bids were submitted in July 2015, it was expected that Seattle would join Las Vegas and Quebec City as potential expansion cities to submit bids. The deadline came and passed, however, without Seattle submitting a bid. But in the midst of the expansion process, Jacobs, when asked about the bids from Las Vegas and Quebec City, added that he would “love to see (the NHL) in the West to be up in Seattle,” calling the city a natural fit.

Seattle’s ability to host an NHL club goes beyond having an arena in place, though, as it has both the population, television market and prospective fan base to make it an intriguing place for the league to land. According to a U.S. Census estimate in 2016, Seattle’s population, 704,000, made it the 18th-most populous city in the country, but that excludes surrounding areas such as Tacoma, Bellevue, Kent and Everett, all of which have a population of at least 100,000 within roughly an hour of Seattle. Meanwhile, Nielsen ranked Seattle-Tacoma as the 14th-best television market in the U.S., and Washington State is home to four teams in the WHL’s U.S. Division, including the Everett Silvertips, Tri-City Americans, Spokane Chiefs and Seattle Thunderbirds, who play at Kent’s ShoWare Center. A piece of hockey history resides in Seattle, as well, as the long-defunct Metropolitans won the 1917 Stanley Cup, but folded in 1924 before the rise of the Original Six.

Assuming Seattle does get a team at some point in the near future, though, the great unknown is whether the franchise comes to the Pacific Northwest by way of expansion or relocation. Both have their perks, to be sure. 

First and foremost, an expansion team in Seattle would come with the opportunity for the league to balance the conferences, as the Eastern Conference boasts 16 teams to the Western Conference’s 15, and the NHL surely wouldn’t be opposed to a potential $500-million expansion fee. An expansion team would also come with the excitement of a blank slate and ability to build from the ground up, just as the Golden Knights have done this season. Relocation, on the other hand, could allow the NHL to bring a readymade organization to the city, one that could be competitive out of the gate. Discussions of relocating the Arizona Coyotes haven’t ceased despite the league’s insistence the team is staying put, and the Calgary Flames’ arena situation has been brought up on several occasions.

The NHL and board of governors aren’t under the gun when it comes to Seattle, mind you. According to Baker, Seattle’s KeyArena renovation, once approved by the mayor, isn’t expected to get underway until late next year and the project isn’t expected to be complete until October 2020, meaning any team playing at the arena likely wouldn’t begin play until the 2020-21 campaign. So, no matter which direction the NHL chooses to go — team or no team, expansion or relocation — the league will have more than enough time to figure out the right way to approach Seattle now that it seems to have its arena situation ironed out.

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