NHL pondering Seattle expansion team?

By Kris Hughes

With the looming move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and the financial troubles for teams like the Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers, is the NHL looking West and abandoning the South?

In an article published this afternoon on the Globe and Mail website, writer Matthew Sekeres suggests that there is an ownership group in Seattle with interest in lobbying the National Hockey League for an expansion franchise with whom NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly has had discussions.

Seattle has a somewhat limited hockey history, but has enjoyed high-level hockey in the past.

Various teams have called the Emerald City home over time including the Seattle Totems (1958-1975) of the old World Hockey League, the Seattle Breakers (1977-1985) of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL) and the WHL, and most recently, the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.

Hockey traditionally has been well received in Seattle, with attendance and support for the resident teams rarely being an issue. While the city has never hosted an NHL franchise, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility it could succeed in doing so.

However, a few key events must take place first before the NHL could capitalize on a Northwestern U.S. expansion franchise–one that could ignite a new regional rivalry with one of the NHL’s most successful franchises, the Vancouver Canucks.

First and foremost, the city must convince the NHL it is willing to raise capital for a new facility, one that can replace the severely outdated and rundown Key Arena.

Ultimately the inability of former Seattle Sonics owner (and current Oklahoma City Thunder owner) Clay Bennett to convince the city of Seattle that a new facility was essential led to the franchise bolting for greener pastures.

Would Seattle’s residents be any more likely to pass a bond election and make the small personal sacrifices necessary to lure an NHL team when three professional franchises in the city are already competing admirably for the expendable entertainment dollar?

The MLS’ Seattle Sounders, the Seattle Seahawks and the Seattle Mariners all have loyal fanbases of differing size.

The Sounders are the new kid on the block as a recent MLS expansion franchise but have been extremely successful in 2011, averaging over 36,000 fans per game.

Using the Sounders as a model for the NHL’s potential success in Seattle, it is reasonable to believe that professional hockey could be workable.

Questions remain:

Would the hole left by the departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City make the Seattle NHL team the primary enterainment option during the winter and are people willing to part with the cash to make it happen?

In essence it comes down to a tolerance for risk.

The NHL has tried, and largely failed, to extend its footprint into non-traditional hockey markets in the U.S., with a few obvious exceptions.

Any ownership group which arises in Seattle will be taking not only a monetary risk in purchasing an expansion franchise, but will be rolling the dice on hockey’s waning overall popularity as well.

Either way, it’s probably a risk worth taking if the Sounders’ success is any indication of the Emerald City’s passion for professional sports.

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