Is Tim Leiweke aiming to bring the NHL to Seattle?

Tim Leiweke
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke appears to be on a mission to bring another professional sports franchise to Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

There’s a certain recklessness to the way Tim Leiweke issues his promises.

In his two-and-a-half year run as president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and when the imported executive got going on the microphone, cocksure claims about the future successes of the teams that fell under his jurisdiction were free-flowing.

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Ultimately, he was unable to keep some of these promises. Toronto FC’s postseason drought, for example, ended one season after he vowed that it would, and the Stanley Cup parade that he swore would need to be planned hasn’t been mapped out in the streets of Toronto yet.

But in the case of both Toronto FC and the Toronto Maple Leafs – two teams he helped send on the right track before skipping town – many of his claims appear as though they will be proven prescient.

One is now a powerhouse, while the other is apparently on the verge.

On Wednesday, Leiweke made another promise.

Oak View Group, his latest executive venture, has enlisted the deep pockets of billionaire David Bonderman and Hollywood film producer Jerry Bruckheimer to funnel $564 million into KeyArena, formerly the home of the Seattle SuperSonics.

These are renovations required to have the building meet NHL and NBA standards.

“We’re going to get you a team. Mark it down.” Leiweke pledged to local movers and shakers as Seattle mayor Ed Murray confirmed Oak View Group’s proposal on Wednesday, according to Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times.

Leiweke didn’t designate which league. But as Calkins explains, NBA expansion isn’t on the horizon, rendering the NHL as the only realistic short-term possibility.

What’s clear in the meantime, however, is that the NBA’s $24 billion television contract runs through the 2024-25 season. It’s unlikely owners are going to want to add teams and further split their money before that deal runs out.

“Mark it down” is something we’ve heard from Leiweke before.

That alone might convince those who have followed his immensely successful career that the NHL coming to Seattle is in fact a distinct possibility. But because it’s supported with such strong evidence that the league is determined to infiltrate the booming city and sports market, there’s no reason to suggest that an NHL-ready arena isn’t the final barricade to lift before preparations for another expansion draft begin.

Local city officials and businesspeople, despite failing to organize a concrete arena proposal to this point, have always had the ear of the NHL. When in contrast, Quebec City, which had the corporate backing and the appropriate infrastructure, was willing to line the owners’ pockets with the $500 million expansion fee, only to be “deferred indefinitely”.

Conversely, Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, who no doubt is interested in an NHL franchise with reasonably close proximity to his city, said Wednesday, “I don’t think there is anybody opposed” to the NHL embedding itself in the Pacific Northwest.

If nothing else, it comes down to simple geography. Seattle offers symmetry with respect to the NHL’s conferences, but also presents the opportunity to branch into a relatively untapped major American market that could be without a competing NBA franchise through, as Calkins suggested, at least 2025.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that the league is not committed to further expansion, and that no current franchise is at risk to relocate. He wouldn’t even admit to having interest in the market.

Of course, this evasiveness is typical of Bettman, who wouldn’t budge on the Las Vegas expansion after it had already long become the league’s worst-kept secret.

One thing we do know for sure: As this process unfolds, Leiweke won’t share in that reservation.

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