So the NHL is coming to Seattle? Think again.

NHL Seattle
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So Seattle is building a new arena, the SuperSonics are on the way back, and the NHL is sure to follow?

Unless you live in Seattle or enjoy the occasional lockout, you’d better hope not.

I recently alluded to one potential issue in my piece about why contracting from 30 to 28 teams makes sense for the league, but the reasons go beyond the fact that kids in Seattle generally don’t play hockey in large numbers at a high level. That’s a reliable gauge of interest but it’s not fool-proof. The same could be said of San Jose and Los Angeles when the NHL expanded to those cities, but no one is pinning the league’s financial shortcomings on the Sharks and Kings.

Let’s first acknowledge that Seattle has some good things going for it besides the arena – an emerging downtown, its claim to being the 13th largest media market in the United States1, and a long history in hockey that includes becoming the first American city to raise the Stanley Cup in 1917.

Oh, about that last point. If Seattle were such a viable NHL market, wouldn’t its hockey history be somewhat stable? To answer that question, set aside the next nine minutes of your life and watch this video. If you want to be sober when it’s over, don’t take a shot every time Seattle gets a new team, league or owner:

To recap, then: Sixty (occasionally interrupted) years of professional hockey at various levels, but never the NHL, followed by 28 years of the major-junior Breakers/Thunderbirds … who decided to move to the suburbs in 2009. The narrator of this video concludes that Seattle makes for an “excellent” National Hockey League market. Yet the facts can’t hide that the most stable period for hockey in Seattle revolve around a junior team now located 20 miles south of town whose average attendance is 4,206 in the 6,500-seat ShoWare Center.

In this sense, a parallel can be drawn to Phoenix. The minor-league Phoenix Roadrunners roamed rinks in the Western Hockey League from 1967-74, and again from 1974-77 in the WHA, but ultimately ceased operations due to poor attendance. Undeterred, the Roadrunners reappeared as an IHL team from 1989-97. The Roadrunners drew smaller crowds2 than all but six IHL teams in its final season in the league, yet for some reason the NHL felt prompted to relocate the Jets to Phoenix (then suburban Glendale). We all know how that turned out.

The biggest difference between Phoenix and Seattle, it seems, is that Phoenix is generally hot and dry, while Seattle is cold and wet. Is that why the idea of the NHL in Seattle seems less repulsive?

The threshold for NHL membership has to be higher – but maybe the threshold for American Hockey League membership doesn’t.

When the Manitoba Moose3 replaced the Jets in Winnipeg in 1996, it served as the perfect breeding ground for pro hockey demand. After 15 years of watching minor-league hockey evolve and thrive in Winnipeg, Gary Bettman concluded that the city had enough fans, an NHL-ready arena, and an owner he could get along with in Mark Chipman. Relocating the Thrashers to Winnipeg seemed safe. There was strong evidence that the New Jets could succeed financially – so far, so good. At best, you could argue that putting an NHL team in Seattle is not so much ill-advised as it is premature, and that an American Hockey League tenant in the new downtown arena would be a good trial.

It’s hard to tell if the NHL feels the same way. To keep any possible franchise relocation a closely guarded secret, Bettman will try his best to avoid being seen publicly in downtown Seattle. This was the case when the commissioner was in the process of moving the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg. That move didn’t happen overnight – it just seemed like it. Bettman got off to a good start a couple weeks ago by renouncing any knowledge of Seattle’s existence saying the NHL isn’t “anticipating being in a situation where a franchise has to be relocated” and that the Seattle market “is not something we’re focused on or considering right now.”

Take that with a grain of salt, but I’m guessing that Bettman is not lying in this instance. Ask him the same question about Quebec City and you might get a slightly different spin.

Here’s why: The observation has been made that Winnipeg and the NHL — like Seattle and the NBA — is a classic case of a city not realizing what it had until it was gone. If you doubt the same can be said about Quebec City, check out what the local dignitaries were wearing at the groundbreaking ceremony for the city’s new arena last year. They didn’t simply wake up late that morning and grab the first thing they found in their closets, which happened to be a Nordiques sweater.

Sure, it’s politics. It’s wishful thinking. It’s also a reminder that there is a proven formula for successfully uprooting and relocating a franchise.

Seattle’s roots simply aren’t NHL-strong. And that should be a major red flag for fans of labor peace.

1. Add an NHL team and Seattle wouldn’t be the smallest “four-team market” in North America. That distinction would still belong to Denver.
2. That’s quite a graph by hockeydb. I acknowledge there are mitigating factors that make a direct comparison of attendance imperfect — particularly the size, quality and location of an arena – but let’s take a closer look at what happened to some of those seldom-seen IHL teams. After the league ceased operations, the Cincinnati Cyclones were folded into the Double-A ECHL. The Fort Wayne Komets reappeared in the Central Hockey League and later the ECHL. The Kansas City Blades disappeared altogether. So did the Long Beach Ice Dogs, eventually. Phoenix got an NHL team.
3. The Moose started out in the IHL then migrated to the AHL in 2001.

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J.P. Hoornstra
J.P. Hoornstra
J.P. Hoornstra is a writer based in Southern California.


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