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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.

6 Responses to “So the NHL is coming to Seattle? Think again.”

  • Dean:

    Although I agree that Seattle isn’t a NHL town, Hoornsta’s reasoning is all flawed. There has been 28 straight years with organized hockey being played in the area. Seattle’s hockey history goes further back; 90 years with ONLY a few years where hockey wasn’t played in the city. So I’m thinking hockey is pretty stable in Seattle and not that shaky.

    The last little nugget Hoornsta uses in his argument is the fact that the organization moved out of the city and into the ‘burbs. Amazingly, Hoornsta ignores the fact that the Thunderbirds were playing in Key Arena, roughly 18k seats, where rent was high, there was no full bowl, and the priority of dates went to the NBA, WNBA, and concert schedules. Any team playing in difficult arena would take the opportunity to move if someone builds you an arena. And, oh, those 20 miles is all metro area driving. There situation is like many NHL, NBA, MLB and add any other professional league to the list where a team plays outside their ‘named’ city.

    Seattle Thunderbirds do only average approximately 4,500 fans per game. That’s not bad considering their home schedule includes a Sunday and Tuesday night games. Both days were most hockey teams attendance fail to produce solid numbers. However, Hoornsta has forgotten another successful team in the area, the Everett Silvertips, who’s attendance has topped 5K last year. BTW…Everett is only a mere 28 miles from Seattle.

    BTW…Fort Wayne Komets left the old IHL two years prior to the IHL’s folding. The Komets left for the United Hockey League, not the CHL. After UHL imploded, a new version of the IHL was borne. That lasted two years prior to the merging with the CHL. Komets lasted two years in the CHL prior to finally joining the ECHL.

  • Dean Schmitz:

    No comments? I commented a day ago…I can’t believe your paper is that behind that where you or your staff can’t approve an official message. Or is it the truthful message that you have a problem with?

  • Dean Schmitz:

    Sad original post was not posted. Guess people in LA media get the weekends off unlike Seattle blogs. Or could it be that a blog writer didn’t like a certain post? Still don’t understand why the original post, besides my misspelling of “their” as there…

    Seriously…FT Komets to the CHL eight years after the fact….and you are commenting on Seattle’s hockey history…heck…you don’t understand hockey history. BTW…FTW Komets have been around for 61 years. Longer than LA Kings. Learn!

  • Brian:

    “but the reasons go beyond the fact that kids in Seattle generally don’t play hockey in large numbers at a high level”

    …should have done a little more research before making this claim.

    Go take a look in Sno-King arena and count how many USA Hockey National and Regional Championship banners are hanging from the rafters. I’m guessing you are going to be very surprised. Take a look at some of the top prep school, Jr. A, NCAA D3 and D! rosters…there are a LOT of kids listed that grew up playing hockey in WA. I think it is fair to say that the hockey tradition in WA is a lot stronger than it was in other states before they got NHL teams…Ex: Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, Carolina etc…

  • Sedate Me:

    Yes, hindsight is…wait for it…20-20! (I’ll be here all week. Enjoy the veal, folks!)But I’ll try to play fair & act like I’m writing this the day the original post was written.

    First off, let’s remember what happened the next time a Seattle team played for the Stanley Cup (1918-19)…the Spanish Influenza! It killed millions of people. It’s unknown how many fans & arena workers died, but virtually ALL the Habs players were hospitalized and one died (another never really recovered & died later). The 2018-19 finals were called off with only ONE game left to play. For safety’s sake, that ONE game was NEVER rescheduled. Until the 2005 Stanley Cup Finalstraw (cancelled purely due to the modern NHL’s pandemic of greed), it was the only other Stanley Cup not to be awarded. (Note: there was a movement in 2005 to hold an invitational tournament for the Stanley Cup that the NHL does NOT own…but the NHL used it’s monopolistic power to strangle the movement in its crib. “No soup hockey for you!”)

    I’m sure if history ever repeated itself (It does that???), the vile, greed mongers in today’s NHL would play the entire playoffs as if nothing was happening. Even if the virus was still rampaging, killing hundreds of thousands, they’d likely play every single game in order to maximize both profits…and the risk to the public. It wouldn’t matter if 6-7 months passed since the last game. It wouldn’t matter if they had to delay next season by months and start it the very day after the last Cup was awarded. Not one game payday will be missed in today’s NHL. Besides, hockey in late August just seems oh-so-natural…like swimming in Lake Winnipeg in January!

    Second, Seattle was previously granted a conditional NHL expansion franchise in the early 70’s, along with Denver and San Diego. All three were yanked, primarily because of the abysmal performance of the Kansas City Scouts and the Washington Capitals. Those teams produced the two worst (completed season) records in hockey history, if I recall. The NHL was more interested in cleaning house than expanding its weakness (Oakland, Pittsburgh & Minnesota were all long-term basket cases.) Curiously, San Diego & Denver both got WHA teams (Denver later got KC’s NHL team. See: NJ Devils Secret Past.)

    However, despite the massive expansion of Major League hockey in the 70’s, that conditional franchise is as close as Seattle ever came. This despite teams in hockey-mad cities like Phoenix, Houston, San Diego, Oakland, Birmingham, Atlanta…plus TWO at the same time in LA and TWO at the same time in Vancouver’s PNE arena!

    Third, and most importantly, today’s NHL is VERY different from the 70’s. Back then it was about providing hockey to hockey fans. Today, it’s about providing captive audiences to corporations. Nothing…absolutely nothing…is sacred. Ads are friggin’ everywhere, CEO’s are massaged in private spas sealed off from the rabble…whose annual mortgage payments are about the same as the price of two tickets. Tie games are decided by Rock-Paper-Scissors.

    In short, the NHL will do ANYTHING that they think will enriches themselves, even by just a few bucks. So if some billionaire idiot in Seattle, Houston, Vegas, Atlanta (3rd time is the charm!), or even Hawaii…wants to pay hundreds of millions for a franchise & can sucker some broke-ass City Hall morons into building him a half billion dollar arena named after some douche-bag corporation …well…the NHL will give them a team. Hey, why not 2 or 3?

    I once lived for Saturday Nights, I even passed up hot dates to see games. But I truly despise every aspect of the Bettman Error. I stopped paying attention in 2005 and yet hate them even more now than ever.

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