BY Art Thiel 09:54PM 03/19/2010

NHL in Seattle? Not now, not soon

The USA-Canada gold medal match was epic drama, but not enough to light the lamp here

Soon as the U.S. tied the gold-medal game with 24 seconds left in regulation  in the waning moments of the Winter Olympics, I knew what recommendations I’d find in my post-Olympics inbox and Soundoffs.

More hockey for everyone!

Let’s get a National Hockey League team in Seattle!

To answer all at once:

No, and


Not that the hockey tournament wasn’t a delight and a TV ratings hit. But the difference between the Olympics’ patriot party/spectacle, and the business of an NHL franchise/season, is the difference between a single date with a movie-star hottie and a marriage.

Most of the country, as well as Seattle, just isn’t that into hockey long-term.

As none other than His Greatness, Wayne Gretzky, put it to Sports Illustrated after the Olympics, “The reality is, this is a two-week high.”

The NHL doesn’t even want the hot date anymore. Every indication is that after shutting down its regular season for the past four Olympics, the league is done with the five rings and will send minor leaguers to Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

One of the most intriguing characters in Vancouver was Brian Burke, the U.S. team’s general manager when he isn’t president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A couple of days before Canada’s 3-2 OT win that justified the nation’s continuing existence, Burke went into a rational rant for reporters about the pending Games abandonment.

“Imagine some of our markets where we’re challenged, attendance-wise,” he said. “You get to a situation in Atlanta or Florida, where they are fighting for a playoff spot, generating interest, then close the doors and say, ‘Thanks for your patronage but come back in 21/2 weeks.’

“Any other business in the world would win some award for imbecility.”

A league secure in its place on the food chain would not worry about losing a couple of weeks every four years. The NHL is not secure, not without a lucrative, long-term cable TV contract on something other than the obscure Versus channel.

“But we do (the Olympics),” Burke went on. “Why do we do it? They say, ‘Oh, look at the matchup: Canada-U.S. This is marvelous.’ Well, what matchup did we have in Torino (in 2006)? What juice did we get out of Nagano (1998)? Nothing. (The NHL) didn’t sell one ticket in Nagano. No one cared about that tournament.

“CTV and NBC are smiling like the cat who swallowed the canary. All you (media) folks are here. Everyone’s interested. Well, if Team Canada and Team USA had press conference in Torino, you could have counted the number of people who showed up our your thumbs. So it’s not that simple that we should go. From a business perspective, it does not make sense for us.”

What Burke and most owners are saying is that despite the public and TV buzz about the Sunday finale, it is not worth it to the NHL to condense the schedule, risk injuries and abandon revenue for the worldwide promotional value of the Olympics.

In the past, Major League Baseball endorsed the same position, withholding its top pros, making it easier for the sport to be kicked out of the Olympics. Basketball gets away with it only because the winter sport was forced into the offseason Summer Games.

So the NHL is prepared to accept the hisses of the fleetingly infatuated, and apparently spectacle-starved, public. The sport has bigger problems, namely the unwise expansion to the U.S. Sun Belt that largely has failed.

If the league really wanted to be something other than the No. 4 pro sport in North America — besides waiting for the NBA to collapse past it — it could adopt Olympic rules that ban fighting and enhance the game.

But in that regard, the NHL is a little like the Republican Party changing policies to please moderates and independents: Any deviation from core values alienates the base. The upshot is both are going to have to be happy with a little corner of their worlds.

Which brings us back to Seattle, and whether it wants to be in that corner. While lovers of hockey locally are persuaded their numbers are legion, that is far secondary to having an arena, and having an owner.

When then-Sonics owner Barry Ackerley floated the idea nearly 20 years ago of an NHL co-tenant in his proposed “Ackdome” (my nickname, not his), it went nowhere because he could not find someone that wanted to own a hockey franchise, mostly because the guy would be the second tenant in the house and the fourth ticket in town.

Much has since changed, but one thing hasn’t — there’s no NHL-worthy arena here. If there will be one, it will be built with private funds.

The recent electoral change in city administrations offers a little bit of hope. New Mayor Mike McGinn hasn’t said much about pursuing a winter-sports franchise for Seattle, for the good reason that he has one or two greater priorities.

The new city attorney, Pete Holmes, did, however, express his personal interest in the return of basketball, or the arrival of the NHL.

A strong critic of his defeated predecessor, Tom Carr, who authorized acceptance of the settlement that allowed the Sonics to break their KeyArena lease and flee to Oklahoma City, Holmes said he sent an e-mail to department heads forwarding my question: Now that the remodel debt is off the books, thanks to the settlement, and the Key can break even operationally, will the city no longer use the building’s competitive fate as an excuse to not support a private-arena project?

Making clear he’s not a policy-maker, Holmes, a longtime sports fan, nevertheless said he’d liked to see the city “move in a more supportive role” and would instruct one of city’s 91 attorneys to look at the issue.

“It’s often the case that the self-inflicted impediments are the worst ones,” he said. “If there is some momentum toward a private solution, I’d like to do what I can to support it.”

It’s hard to see through this still-disastrous economy to find that special someone(s) to put together an arena project that can work. And while we all know that the state, county and city governments will not shake loose a dime of taxpayer money, the least the city could do this time is not use passive-aggressive tactics to impede the business brokers.

If a private solution were to manifest over the next several years, rescuing a failed NHL franchise has more emotional appeal because the effort wouldn’t put Seattle in cahoots with NBA pirates Clay Bennett and David Stern to pillage another city in the way they pillaged Seattle.

While we wait to see whether a hockey lamp gets lit, it’s time to organize a short-track speedskating league. Who wouldn’t pay to see local hero Apolo Ohno clash blades with the Koreans?

Remember, we once paid to see Vin Baker, Danny Fortson and Robert Swift.


  • AgentJ

    I feel like excitement for hockey has really grown in the last 1.5 years, especially with the Canucks’ run this year. Seattle seems to have embraced them strongly in this run. If the arena were to arrive, wouldn’t an NHL team be following close behind?

  • AgentJ

    I feel like excitement for hockey has really grown in the last 1.5 years, especially with the Canucks’ run this year. Seattle seems to have embraced them strongly in this run. If the arena were to arrive, wouldn’t an NHL team be following close behind?