BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 08/20/2019

Thiel: A chance to write some stories from inside

After the sagas of the Coliseum, Kingdome and baseball/football stadiums, Tod Leiweke asked me if I wanted to write about the next big thing. I said sure.

Hockey Partners CEO Tod Leiweke, here at a ceremonial groundbreaking event at the arena in December, has some stories to tell. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

When the Kingdome was conceived in the early 1970s, the notion of a nine-acre roof made of concrete, unique in the world, seemed preposterous. It wasn’t. At least, for 24 years and host to four major sports teams, it wasn’t.

When in the middle 1990s the plans for a replacement baseball park were disclosed, they included a first-of-its-kind, giant steel retractable roof that ran on railroad tracks. How 1880s. How implausible. The project just passed its 20th anniversary.

Not long after baseball’s park plan emerged came football’s plan for a replacement stadium. The absurdity was not in the roof — it didn’t have one — but in the financing. Team owner Paul Allen, one of the world’s richest men after Microsoft went public 10 years earlier, sought a $380 million tax subsidy from the state, and was willing to fund a statewide, one-issue election to get it.

Right. You betcha, Paul. You hit the pinata on your first swing, with software. That’s it for you, pal.

Except he won the election, built the noisiest stadium in the NFL, and won a Super Bowl.

Now before the Seattle House of Sport is the most audacious plan of all — creation for an NHL expansion franchise of a new arena/concert hall at Seattle Center, entirely with private funds, that will also include preserving the 57-year-old, 44-million-pound roof.

As one of the architects put it, “It’s like building a ship in a bottle.” For $900 million. While the North American sports and entertainment world watches, collective eyebrow cocked, until the planned opening in the middle of 2021.

The drama is richest when the acrobat has no net.

So when NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke asked me if I’d be interested in a part-time gig writing stories from the inside of the project, he had me at hello.

Actually, it was hello again.

Leiweke was in charge of the Seahawks under Allen from 2003 to 2010, also helped direct the MLS launch of the Sounders, and helped with Allen’s first sports love, the NBA Portland Trail Blazers.

He returned to Seattle following gigs as CEO and part-owner of the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning, preceding a turn as COO of the NFL. From near and far, I watched as Leiweke seemed to demonstrate some chops for the sports business. So if he was persuaded that brother Tim’s little barn-raising on lower Queen Anne Hill was a plausible endeavor, there must be something to it.

“The journey building a new arena and launching a team offers many great stories,” he said over coffee. “We need great storytellers.”

I checked over both my shoulders to make sure he wasn’t making eye contact with someone else, and decided this could be fun to spend a little time working with www.nhl.com/seattle.

There’s never been a project like it.

My Northwest hockey knowledge goes from Guyle Fielder to the Sedin brothers, but as with any club, depth needs improvement. Then again, larger stories in the run-up to the arena opening also are about history, civic politics, finance, construction — including the pending Northgate practice facility —  and the embrace of a region absent top-tier professional hockey for nearly a century.

For Sportspress Northwest, I will forego hockey/arena columns, but keep up with the usual mayhem dispensed by the Seahawks, Huskies, Mariners, Sounders and other Seattle and national sports developments.

Including one that will be a personal first.

During the first weekend in September, I will attend and write about the enshrinement ceremonies for the 2019 class of the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame that includes former Sonics star Jack Sikma.

The Mariners’ Edgar Martinez had to wait 15 years after retirement for enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sikma waited 28 years. I’ve never been to the hall in Springfield, MA., but if they have a Pro Sports Delayed Gratification Award, I have a nomination to submit.

I like to think I was barely more than a tall zygote when I worked the 1979 NBA Finals that brought Seattle its first sports championship with Sikma in the pivot. So the chance to travel to sacred hoops ground to put a bow on the Sonics experience in Seattle is irresistible.

The plan is to be back Sept. 8 for another Seattle religious experience — a Seahawks season opener.

You know the sacred text, from First Carrollians:

“Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, and instead raise among you voices to hail that which is holy — the naked boot from Wilson to Lockett for 23 yards.”


YourThoughts

  • Alan Harrison

    What a great gig! I’m jealous as all get out, but you deserve every good bit of these trips and tips. Can’t wait to read all about how a franchise gets off the ground – from the inside! And the trip to the Hall…I too was but a sprite in 1979 (all right, I was 20, but was a real space cadet), but that’s hallowed ground indeed. Enjoy…you have an enviably great life!

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Alan. As with every job, there’s the downs too — like the emaciation of an entire industry. But since none of the downs involves shoveling asphalt on a hot summer day, I’m going to roll with it.

  • tor5

    I don’t know much about hockey, and have only loosely followed news about the new team coming to Seattle. But I have to say that the fact that Leiweke just recruited the best sportswriter around to cover developments is impressive. Seriously. That’s a good eye for talent and a masterstroke in getting guys like me to pay attention.

    • art thiel

      I bow in your general direction, tor5.

  • Parts

    I’m looking forward to reading your stories Art. I’m not sure if I will be able to let go of my lifetime loyalty to the Red Wings, but I’m very excited at the NHLs arrival in Seattle. I can’t think of a better scribe to document the process.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Parts. I’ve always enjoyed the pursuit of the bigger picture.

      And it’s possible to have co-favorite teams.

  • Tian Biao

    excellent! nice looking website too. l look forward to your articles, but even more, I look forward to inundating Rogers Centre (home of the Canucks) with thousands of loud like-minded Seattle hockey fans and irking the hell out of the locals.

    • art thiel

      I sense payback coming for the annual avalanche of fans from the Great White North at the ballpark. Keep in mind that no NHL team has lost more games over the past three seasons than the Canucks.

      • Guy K. Browne

        The Canucks started their “stepback” roughly 4 years ago… fans there have also been paying full price although I think management has actually tempered pricing somewhat in the last year or two. They now have a pretty exciting young nucleus of players including last season’s ROY (Calder Trophy) and they’ve been much more fun to watch. The first two years of the reset were dreadful.
        Aside from that, Canucks fans have been buried twice annually by similar avalanches of Montreal and Toronto fans at Rogers arena. They know the pain (and embarrassment) of being upstaged in the home barn.

        • art thiel

          When does a stepback become a fall off the cliff? Asking for my friend Wile E. Coyote.

  • Guy K. Browne

    I echo the sentiment, there could be no better choice to document the coming of a new professional sports team to Seattle. Those of us who have followed the Seattle sporting scene for the last uh…. well for a while now, have been exceptionally lucky to read Art’s columns.
    The only thing that gives me pause on this one is, there are few sports writers these days who are willing to step up and say that the dead fish stinks. Art has unflinchingly always been that writer. At times it has come at the expense of access, but good journalists pay that price.
    Once on the inside, that becomes an exponentially tougher task… it’s much more difficult to kick someone in the junk (when they sorely need it) when it’s less than an arm’s length transaction. It will be another journalists job to step into that void at least in regard to this particular topic. That’s not an easy ask. As Art alludes to in the comments section here, the newspaper business ain’t what it used to be, hence fewer opportunities to find employment writing about sports. I don’t know this for certain, but few writers in this environment would likely risk their access to those that they write about by writing the unvarnished truth, it wouldn’t bode well for their continued success. Art has seemingly never shied away from saying what needs to be said.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the good words, Guy. Regarding going inside, I liken it to a political writer leaving journalism to join a campaign, or as an office staffer/appointee of an elected, eventually returning to journalism much smarter about how the system works.

      • Guy K. Browne

        As others have mentioned, I too will be looking forward to your writings about the NHL coming to Seattle. Before the Sonics/Pilots/Seahawks/Mariners, I was a young boy going to Totems games. Heroes of the day were Guyle Fielder, John Hannah, Marc Boileau, Bobby Schmautz, Don Ward, Don Head, et. al. The NHL was only 6 teams so the caliber of play that we witnessed was substantially better than the WHL of today. In an expanded NHL, many of these players would have been in the bigs.

        • art thiel

          I even remember Willie O’Ree.

          • Guy K. Browne

            Met Willie a couple of times as a kid, Al Nicholson lived in the same apartment complex as my mom in San Diego so we got to know Al pretty well during the times that we were down to visit on summer vacation. My brother and I would hang outside the gulls locker room at the end of Totems/Gulls games to say hi. At my dads place over in Chelan, we have an old wooden stick that the whole Gulls team autographed, including Willie O’Ree. Dude played nearly 30 years of professional hockey.

    • Husky73

      Guy, great post.

  • jafabian

    Congratulations on this opportunity Art! Can’t think of anyone better qualified. Looking forward to your work for NHL Seattle.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, John. I appreciate the support and comments here at SPNW.

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    Mr. Art
    And the best part of this is some of your loyal detractors (1foolguy, et al) have to put a great big sock in it. Being recognized for quality writing soothes most.
    Most sincere and enthusiastic congratulations, sir!

    • art thiel

      I don’t consider them detractors. They are readers, and I’m glad to have them, as I am you, Mr. S, who appreciate words well-chosen. Thanks.

  • Roy S

    As someone who has covered many local teams languishing in the basement, there’s probably no one more uniquely qualified than you Art to cover the Seattle hockey enterprise literally from the ground up. May the Zamboni be with you.

    • art thiel

      The ground floor feels normal. But a weekend in the penthouse would be fun.

  • Bruce McDermott

    Congrats, Art–that’s a plum deal. I am curious, though–does Leiweke expect a series of puff pieces about how great everything is going, with nary a hint of the usual (and usually appropriate) skepticism in which you traffic as an actual journalist? Because the writers “inside” seahawks.com, for example, are about as vanilla as they come on that score. Controversy is not exactly their stock in trade over there, yet you usually dive gleefully into whatever you can find in every arena, so to speak.

    So I hope “inside” doesn’t mean we are going to get essentially PR bulletins that pass muster with the censors, explicitly or implicitly….

    • art thiel

      Leiweke values honesty and transparency. Will I push the edge? Yes. As I did with my P-I editors. I likely will do some explanatory features, too, which I enjoy.

      If you read my book on the Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” you’ll get the idea.

  • Husky73

    Only because you have promised more mayhem, I remain in.