NHL, Seattle Could Be Good Fit

In addition to the looming trade deadline, relocation will be a big part of the NHL conversation after San Francisco businessman Chris Hansen unveils his plan to bring a new  sports arena in Seattle Thursday afternoon.

Photo: Wikimedia

The hedge fund wizard has hopes of luring an NBA team to the Emerald City. Hansen himself doesn’t want to foot the bill for a hockey team, but there are interested parties in bringing the NHL to Seattle, including Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin. If everything falls into place, Seattle should a highly attractive destination for the NHL.

For the NBA, it looks as though the Sacramento Kings would be the most likely to be on the move to Seattle, if this proposal succeeds. Then in the NHL, it’s plain to see that the Phoenix Coyotes would be the most likely relocation victim.

Still in search of a buyer, time has been running out on the Yotes future in Glendale, Ariz. I hate the idea of relocating a team, but it’s getting to a point now where options for staying in Glendale are becoming fewer and fewer.  If the NHL feels that it has no alternative but to relocate, when the time comes, there is only one choice.

If the NHL can avoid relocating the Coyotes, it should. If the team is able to find an owner that will give it a fighting chance in a very difficult market, then the NHL should continue the Phoenix experiment. There are an awful lot of “ifs” though.

I don’t think it’s fair to say the NHL has failed in Phoenix. The Coyotes have certainly struggled, but I’m not sure how one is supposed to define failure in this instance. Hockey has grown in the desert and when the Yotes are in the playoffs, people show up to the games. However, not knowing if they’ll have a team next year has to lead to some trepidation on the part of the paying public. Why support a team and get emotionally invested if they’re going to be gone soon? With many obstacles ahead for Phoenix, the ownership problem doesn’t seem as though it will be easily resolved, if it gets resolved at all.

The Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg this offseason and, as expected, the Winnipeg fan base embraced the team and has continually shown up to games and bought everything with a Jet on it. Now Quebec City wants in on the action. As much as I’d love to see the beautiful blue Nordiques jerseys back in the league, I don’t think Quebec City is the best long-term option for the NHL.

When the NHL decided to approve the relocation of Atlanta to Winnipeg, there was no other viable option for relocation in that time of need. It was Winnipeg or bust. If Seattle’s arena proposal becomes a reality, it not only becomes an option, but the best one.

Seattle is an established sports town with the NFL’s Seahawks, MLB’s Mariners and the insanely popular Sounders of the MLS. The city also recently felt the sting of losing its NBA franchise when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. Hell hath no fury like a city scorned.

The return of the NBA would send Seattle into a fervor. It is clear that getting the Sonics back is the top priority in the city. That said, the chances of landing the last piece to the puzzle in making Seattle an elite sports city has to be alluring. With an NHL franchise, Seattle would have every major North American professional league represented.

The NHL has an opportunity to step foot in a city its never been in (though the Seattle Metropolitans was the first American team to win the Stanley Cup in 1917), thus creating a new market for the league to grow into.

It may not happen overnight, but the structure is there for the NHL to make Seattle work.

Nielsen lists the Seattle-Tacoma TV market as the 12th largest (PDF) in the United States. While market size alone has not dictated success (Phoenix is 13th largest, Atlanta is eighth), it is likely the NHL would prefer to move a team within large media markets, for better long-term growth potential.

Also, the state of Washington has more of an established hockey culture than most of the Sunbelt states the NHL expanded to in the 1990s. A lot of that is thanks to hockey’s nationwide growth in popularity over the last decade. So timing may also be in Seattle and the NHL’s favor in terms of projecting success.

There are nearly 8,000 USA Hockey registered hockey players (PDF) in Washington. It’s not a huge hockey-playing population, but it has consistently grown over the last 20 years. Since 1991, Washington’s USA Hockey player membership has grown by 234.1 percent. There has been a particular spike in growth at the 8 & Under age levels in the last five years, which mirrors what’s been happening across the country.

Of the states without an NHL team, Washington has experienced considerable growth, albeit at a bit more of a gradual pace. States with NHL teams have seen more significant and rapid gains in the last 20 years (with population being an obvious factor).

When the NHL expanded to the South, hockey participation grew in a big way in the subsequent years, particularly in Texas (1,156.8%) and Florida (804.7%). So if Washington can grow without the NHL, imagine what it can do once there’s a professional team in its largest city driving interest and exposing the game to a wider audience.

With 32 rinks statewide, most of which are clustered within driving distance of Seattle, and Washington’s decent-sized hockey-playing membership, the area has the structure already in place for further growth.

Now growing hockey doesn’t necessarily mean that a larger fan base will embrace the NHL, but there are a few indications that the Seattle area could latch on to a pro hockey team.

Seattle is also home to the WHL’s Thunderbirds, and nearby Everett has the Silvertips.

Brian Stubits of CBSSports.com has a great post on this topic and mused that the popularity of the WHL clubs could be one indicator that NHL hockey could work in Seattle.

In the 2010-11 season, the Thunderbirds — who now play in the suburb of Kent instead of Key Arena in Seattle — averaged 4,096 fans per night. The Silvertips a short ways north of the city averaged 5,807 fans per game. That’s a combined nearly 10,000 patrons per game for the local junior teams, assuming there’s little to no overlap. That’s not a bad start, especially for junior hockey, which isn’t going to draw as much interest as the NHL.

Stubits, a native of the Puget Sound area in Washington, also mentioned that the NHL would not likely be the most popular game in town with so many other pro teams, but that it wouldn’t mean fans wouldn’t come out consistently. The NHL isn’t often the most popular game in town, but in cities like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, people still show up.

The Pacific Northwest is really the final frontier for the National Hockey League in the United States. Sure, the Canucks are nearby in Vancouver, but to give the region an American team to call its own could have a large impact, particularly on a bordering state like Oregon which has less than 1,000 registered hockey players in state.

There is reason for skepticism, but the NHL has a great opportunity with Seattle to expand the league’s footprint, while also growing hockey in the United States. It’s a moderate risk, high reward situation for the league and one worth exploring diligently.

Obviously there is a lot that needs to happen throughout this process. While we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves, it’s important to think about. The NHL undoubtedly is watching this situation with keen interest. If it ever comes to fruition, it could be an excellent opportunity for the league and the city of Seattle. All any of us can do for now is wait and see.


About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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2 Responses to NHL, Seattle Could Be Good Fit

  1. Razor says:

    The NHL would be great fit for Seattle and other than Oregon, states like Idaho, Montana, and Utah have seen good growth.

  2. I want to see the NHL expand into Salt Lake City, the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies have had some success winning back to back Turner Cups in the IHL during the 90’s. I would love to see this happen and maybe it would spur the growth of youth hockey that is badly needed in places like Utah County 30 minutes south of Salt Lake. Move the Coyotes to Utah where there is actually a winter there and kids play hockey outdoors on frozen ponds and lakes.

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