NHL Hockey in Seattle–Eh?

Concept drawing for future Seattle NHL team. Courtesy of Dan Ryan.
Concept drawing for future Seattle NHL team. Courtesy of Dan Ryan.

When the United States Olympic hockey team posted its big win over host Russia in the recently concluded Winter Olympics, St. Louis Blues’ forward T.J. Oshie scored four out of six times in a shootout, leading the red, white and blue to a first-round victory.

Oshie was all of four years old when he first stepped on the ice for the Seattle Junior Hockey Association for the first time. Born in Mount Vernon, WA, Oshie went on to play for the University of North Dakota and the US in various international competitions.

It’s been that kind of year for Seattle. While the only player in the Olympics with ties to the area was turning in a performance worthy of a Wheaties box, rumors started anew that the Emerald City would soon be awarded a National Hockey League franchise.

A quick Google search reveals that sports media sites from Minneapolis to Boston to Vancouver, are projecting that Seattle will be one of the cities if the NHL decides to add two more teams (probably beginning operation for the 2015-16 season. Las Vegas, Quebec, Kansas City and Portland are other possibilities). Much of the conjecture surrounding Seattle stems from comments that NHL Deputy Commissioner and Chief Legal Officer Bill Daly recently made to the Seattle Times.

“I think Seattle’s an intriguing marketplace from the league’s perspective,” said Daly. “We think the possibility is there (for a team). It’s kind of more obvious than some of the other areas.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman once worked for recently retired NBA commissioner David Stern, but hasn’t exhibited the dislike for Seattle that marked his former boss’s dealings with the city. When the Phoenix Coyotes were considering relocating last season, Bettman called Seattle “a fun place” to have a team. Part of Seattle’s appeal is geographic: a team closer to Vancouver would make for more convenient road trips. The closest NHL team to the Canucks — the Calgary Flames — is 602 miles away. San Jose’s almost 900 miles away from the British Columbia city. But with Pacific Northwest expansion, teams could play in Seattle and Vancouver on back-to-back nights.

The Stanley Cup-winning Seattle Metropolitans.
The Stanley Cup-winning Seattle Metropolitans.
While Seattle might not have the hockey tradition of cities like Boston, Detroit or Chicago, the city can make a boast no else can — it was the first US team to win a Stanley Cup. The Seattle Metropolitans made their debut in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in 1915. Two years later, the Mets beat the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL), three games to one and capture professional sports’ oldest trophy.

The PCHL folded in 1934, but started up again in 1944. In 1952, it was renamed the Western Hockey League. Seattle’s representative in the league was known at various times as the Ironmen, the Bombers, and the Americans. The Seattle Totems debuted in 1958, probably the name most associated with Seattle hockey. The Totems won the league championship in 1959, 1967 and 1968. The team folded in 1975, but not many people know or remember that the Totems were briefly part of the NHL — although they never played a game in the majors.

In 1974, the Totems and the Denver Spurs, also of the WHL, were awarded NHL franchises for 1976. But when owner Vincent Abbey was late on some of his payments to the league the franchise was revoked. Abbey felt that the league didn’t act in good faith and sued the NHL and the Vancouver Canucks, who he felt were trying to keep the Totems out of the league. The case was noteworthy enough to be included in Fundamentals Of Transnational Litigation In The United States, Canada and Japan, a book probably of interest mostly to law school students. The courts ruled in the NHL’s favor in 1991.

In 1990, Seattle was again mentioned as a possible expansion team before the league awarded a franchise to San Jose. Another key moment (no pun intended) came in 1994 when then Seattle Sonics’ owner Barry Ackerley remodeled the Seattle Center Coliseum, renamed the Key Arena. The refurbished venue only seated 11,000 for hockey, squelching any hopes of a NHL team coming to Seattle.

If the NHL announces any expansion plans this season it will probably be before the playoffs begin in April or at the amateur draft in June. One possible obstacle (or not) to Seattle getting a hockey team is the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) that Chris Hansen signed with the city stating that building a new arena in Seattle wouldn’t commence until an NBA team agreed to play here. Some feel this could be switched to hockey.

Seattle Totems jersey, circa 1963-64.
Seattle Totems jersey, circa 1963-64.
There are also three groups that are interested in a Seattle NHL franchise – Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO and a Hansen ally; Don Levin, owner of the minor-league Chicago Wolves, and Ray Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza, two New York financiers, who were interested in buying the Phoenix franchise if it relocated in Seattle last year. At that time, Bartoszek and Lanza told Tim Burgess of the Seattle City Council, they would be willing to assume financial responsibility in bringing Key Arena up to NHL standards if the team had to play there for a season or two.

How the city would support an NHL team is the great unknown. NHL teams tend to slightly outdraw the NBA as the nhltoseattle.com website likes to point out, but certainly the city has a more recent history with pro basketball. NHL tickets are also generally more expensive. Plus, an expansion team could be pretty bad the first couple of years.

As far as a name goes, the Seattle Totems appears to be a sentimental favorite. But if anyone finds that politically incorrect, well, there’s always the Seattle Freeze.

Writer Ray Murphy covered hockey at every level — from youth leagues to the NHL — in 25 years as a sportswriter.

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