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Seattle unlikely to be first in line for NHL

Timing, logistics make city better prospect for expansion team

Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Snagging the troubled Phoenix Coyotes hockey franchise for Seattle won’t be the empty-net goal some have suggested.

A deal to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz., fell apart last week when prospective buyer Greg Jamison failed to secure financing in time to meet a Jan. 31 deadline. Jamison has vowed to continue pursuit of the franchise, but is expected to meet considerable opposition from a newly elected Glendale mayor and town council that has already spoken out against the favorable conditions attached to the previous deal.

Seattle would definitely be a top candidate for a relocation of the Coyotes, but as things currently stand, Quebec City appears a more viable destination, given the speedy time frame involved. For one thing, Quebec already served as home to a National Hockey League franchise with the Nordiques from 1979-80 through the 1994-95 season and has broken ground on a $400 million arena.

“People in the league want to see how serious people are in the project, and that there won’t be any going back or (backing out),” former Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut, who is spearheading a bid to bring the NHL back to his city, was quoted in news reports last week. “When you have a building, it shows there is no going back. The people working on the project are the ones who took the risk by working toward the building.”

A recently-approved arena for Seattle would appear to need an NBA tenant to be secured first ahead of any construction green light. The hurdle could be cleared if the NBA approves a sale of the Sacramento Kings to a group led by Chris Hansen, but right now, Sacramento groups are emerging there to try to keep the club where it is.

It’s doubtful the NHL would give the go-ahead for the Coyotes to relocate to Seattle without assurances that an NBA team is, in fact, coming and that construction on the new arena can begin. When it comes to a temporary arena where a relocated Coyotes franchise could be housed, Quebec has an edge over KeyArena.

Quebec would house its new NHL franchise at the Colisee Pepsi, a 15,176-seat venue that served as home to the Nordiques for 15 years and has continued to host international tournaments and major junior hockey. The new arena package has set aside $7 million to refurbish the Colisee as a temporary home to a new franchise.

In Seattle, the 15,177-seat (for hockey) KeyArena has never been used for NHL games and hasn’t played host to hockey of any kind since the WHL Thunderbirds left after 2009. That’s an obstacle that could be overcome, but the reality is, there still is not any firmly-established ownership group in Seattle that appears ready to take over a hockey team.

The closest Seattle has to that – at least publicly – is Chicago businessman Don Levin, who has stated his plan centers more on an expansion franchise. In Quebec, the new team would be headed by Pierre-Karl Peladeau and his giant Quebecor media empire, which has secured naming rights to the new arena for $63.5 million.

Arena pitchman Aubut is himself a known entity in NHL circles from his previous ownership stint and current title as president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Indeed, given the head start Quebec has over Seattle, the more sensible move for the NHL would appear to be relocating the Coyotes to Canada and then letting an expansion club form in Seattle in a couple of years.

By that point, any issues over the NBA and building the arena could be resolved. The last thing the NHL – already facing trouble in several U.S. markets – needs is to move a troubled franchise from Phoenix into a Seattle location that isn’t fully prepared for the challenges ahead.

And this market will have its challenges, one of which is that this has never been a hockey hotbed in the first place. Finding any NHL buzz here come playoff time is a challenge, despite the area’s longstanding junior hockey tradition and the fact the local Metropolitans won a Stanley Cup in 1917.

Any new Seattle team would automatically begin as the No. 2 tenant behind an NBA franchise in its own arena. Locally, the NHL club would have to make inroads in a sports community with fierce loyalties to the NFL Seahawks, MLB Mariners, NCAA Huskies and the MLS Sounders.

A team in Quebec would face no such problems, given that the next closest sport in terms of popularity is CFL and NFL football, with smaller-scale Canadian college football the biggest live draw. Hockey passions in Quebec date back generations and often take on religious overtones, while the Nordiques’ rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens was among the biggest and fiercest the sport has known.

Landing a hockey team alone won’t be enough for Seattle. It has to then support that team over the long-haul.

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