‘Secret Sauce’ – How Seattle is planning to create the perfect NHL franchise

SEATTLE — The temporary offices for the NHL Seattle franchise are in a nondescript, tan two-story building on a residential street, two blocks from the arena. If visitors ring the doorbell, staffers must scurry from their seats to greet them. Receptionist? That’s somewhere on the to-do list. Only 13 people work here now. So while the walls are filled with framed photos of outdoor hockey games, motivational posters such as Wayne Gretzky’s “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take” mantra and, yes, whiteboards scribbled with a few options for the eventual team nickname, there are rows of empty desks.

“It’s like working for a startup,” says team chief operating officer Victor DeBonis. By the time the arena opens in 2021, DeBonis projects there will be about 1,000 on staff.

The NHL’s board of governors unanimously voted to accept Seattle as the 32nd franchise in December, but opted to begin play in 2021, not a season earlier — which gave the Seattle team the luxury of slowing down, but also a brief scare. Momentum had been cascading. Seattle had racked up 32,000 season ticket deposits for the 17,000-seat arena. “We were a little nervous that some folks might back out when they pushed it back a year,” team CEO Tod Leiweke said. In the following week, only four people dropped out. Then 5,000 more were added to the wait list.

Interest in the team feels limitless. Thank the Vegas Golden Knights, who set a new standard for how quickly expansion teams can thrive. Another factor: Seattle leadership, a group of seasoned sports executives, have challenged themselves to create a perfect team, blending a new level of fan engagement with a cutting-edge arena that could integrate seamlessly into one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

“It feels like it’s more than just an expansion team,” says Dave Tippett, who is still the only member of the team’s hockey operations department. “We’ve talked about it here — we’d like this to be a legacy franchise, a franchise that 50 years from now, everyone looks back on and says, ‘Wow, that’s the way to do it.'”

So yeah, people want in. Tippett receives, on average, two to three résumés per day. “I’ve even gotten résumés for Zamboni drivers,” he says. Let’s just say those fall to the bottom of the pile, for now.

The objective now is laying out the dream with broad strokes, and filling in the details. Here’s what that looks like.


Building out a staff

Vegas hired its general manager, George McPhee, in July 2016, 15 months before the team’s inaugural game. He spent the summer filling out the hockey operations staff and, by the fall, scouts were dispatched to games. Since Seattle was given an extra year, leadership isn’t sure if it should follow the same timeline.

“There’s an economic question,” Leiweke says of adding too many jobs on payroll two years out. “But our ownership has been awesome and said, ‘Don’t let that rule the day.'” The ownership group, which is led by majority owner/investment banker David Bonderman, already has committed nearly $2 billion — between the $650 million expansion fee, $70 million practice facility and arena, which has jumped to $850 million in costs — up $200 million from initial projections.

In talking to Seattle leadership, you get the sense they may prefer to hire a general manager this spring. Since other teams will be better prepared for an expansion draft, Seattle wants a head start as well. To that end, Tippett has a software program, developed by interns, that allows him to mock draft from current NHL teams’ rosters, but of course, much will change before the June 2021 draft.

Once the GM is hired, countless other decisions will fall on this person — ranging from how to structure the European scouting staffs to hiring the first coach — so filling the position will allow the group to move forward on that front.

Tippett has a master spreadsheet with tabs for every potential job in hockey operations. When someone has expressed interest in a job, he plugs in their name. There are other candidates Tippett has identified himself. “They don’t know their name is on there,” he says. As of now, Tippett says there are “10 or 12 viable candidates out there, and as we move on, we’ll try to get that a little lower.”

“We’re going to go through our search [this spring] and see how things go,” Tippett says. “If the right person is there, then maybe we’ll hire two years out. If we don’t find the right person, we’ll wait.”


Finding an AHL affiliate

Recently, a lot of Tippett’s energy has been poured into identifying an AHL franchise. Building out a successful minor league affiliate is crucial for an NHL team’s success. Last season, there were roughly 6,000 NHL games played by recalled players. On average, that’s five or six recalled players per night. The AHL has 31 franchises and, according to league president and CEO Dave Andrews, “will hopefully expand at the same rate and at the same time as the NHL.”

Tippett has had steady communication with the AHL office and has scouted several potential locations.

“There are some turnkey ones that you go into with a partnership, and everything is in place,” Tippett says. “There might be a new situation where you go into where we build a team right from scratch there. If we do a turnkey one, we don’t have to do anything for a year or two. If we do a whole new situation, we might have to start going quicker.”

The preference would be to not share an affiliate, as Vegas did with the Chicago Wolves in its first season. “I don’t think that’s what they would like to do — it’s not the ideal way to go about it,” Andrews says. “Vegas did it because we were kind of backed up a year.” (In a game of musical chairs, the AHL had added the Colorado Eagles, formerly of the ECHL, as an expansion franchise, but not until 2018-19. The Avalanche wanted Colorado as its affiliate, but they were still in San Antonio. The Blues were in Chicago but wanted to go to San Antonio. And thus the year of sharing between the Blues and Golden Knights.)

Once Seattle settles on a location, the AHL board of governors must approve the new team by a three-fourths vote. There is an expansion fee, though Andrews declined to say how much, only offering, “It’s definitely not $650 million.” (Sources say it’s a fraction of that.) “I wouldn’t expect it would lead to realignment,” Andrews says. “I think Dave [Tippett]’s primary objective would be to land in the Pacific Division, and we have space for another team in there.”


Reinventing Key Arena

The renovated arena — formerly Key Arena, where the Sonics used to play — is nestled in the same public park that houses the Space Needle. The current tenants, the WNBA Storm, have been temporarily relocated but will return when the project is done, hopefully by spring 2021. The naming rights for Key Arena actually expired in 2011, but the Key Arena sign remained. A new sponsor never emerged and nobody wanted to pay to extricate the sign. DeBonis and Leiweke say they are in discussion with several companies for naming rights. “It’s been pretty overwhelming with the amount of interest,” DeBonis says.

The arena’s historic roof is wide and triangular. “The beauty of it is, if you have a traditional arena, it would dominate the landscape and overtake the campus,” DeBonis says. “This is elegant. You actually don’t know what it is. It could be anything. It’s like you’re in Paris, you go to the Louvre. Where is the museum? Right? It’s kind of like that.”

Adds Leiweke: “We have to break the perception that this is a renovation. This is an entire new arena under an historic roof. It’s going to be epic. It’s going to be tight — we’re digging down, so it defines the steepness of this. We’re going to go from 400,000 to 750,000 square feet. There are a lot of engineers that are going to earn honorary doctorates after this project. The bowl is going to remain very tight and intimate. There’s not going to be a bad seat in the house. When you’re OK sitting in the last seat in the last row because it’s actually pretty good views, that says something. Our ambition is to add the tightest, most compelling bowl in all the world of sports.”

Tippett, who used to own a building company, has been intimately involved in the floor plans for both the practice facility and the arena. He has toured other league facilities, taking note of how much space is necessary for dressing rooms (noting how a few teams do have “wasted space”) but also what the modern player needs. For example, it was important to have a common area separate from the locker room and cafeteria that every player, coach and member of the training staff has to go through to foster a “family atmosphere” — but also a “spa” of tubs outside the bathroom that can be a players-only space to unwind after games.

“When it comes to the visiting dressing room and other amenities, we’re kind of in the Mark Cuban school of thought where we want anyone who walks in to be impressed,” Tippett says. “As far as for our team, it needs to be somewhere that a player or coach can walk in and say, ‘I can do my best here.'”

The city is looking forward to a revived arena, also.

“Key Arena had a pretty good run of attracting a lot of entertainment and concerts in a subpar facility,” says Jon Scholes, president/CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. “They were doing OK over the last five or six years in increasing bookings after the Sonics left. But what the Oak View Group is doing and quality of design is going to position them to attract a lot more.”

Key Arena had below-grade loading docks that deterred some larger acts, and that will be fixed. “We want this venue to be a top-five venue in North America,” DeBonis says. “Everyone understands hockey is 41 [home] games, there will potentially be double the number of concerts and events that happen there. Really powerhouse events. We would like to get a two [as in 200] in front of the number of events we have here. I think we can do it. And I think there’s a demand.”

Earlier this month, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he promised an All-Star Game and draft to Seattle within their first seven years. It hasn’t been confirmed, but Leiweke says he is hoping to secure the 2021 draft, which will coincide with the expansion draft. Bettman seemed less enthused by Seattle hosting a Winter Classic, citing conditions as a concern. That won’t stop Seattle from pursuing the event anyway. “It doesn’t always rain like people think,” Leiweke says. “We have a great facility here in T-Mobile [Park] — the roof can close in short order. But we’ll get to that in time.”

Every principal and design of the renovated arena has kept in mind being able to accommodate an NBA team as well. “We’re never going to get in front of the NBA, we’re never going to get in front of the commissioner,” Leiweke says. “But we’ll be ready for that opportunity when it comes. … Our ambition is to create one of the greatest arenas in the world, and the NBA should certainly be a part of that at some point in time. But, one miracle at a time.”


The ‘secret sauce’

“Vegas did something that’s amazing and something that really worked in that market,” DeBonis says. “They found the secret sauce, and other teams in the league have the secret sauce too. Not like Vegas, but in their own way. Montreal, Chicago, Nashville — there are some major energized fans. So we have to find the secret sauce here.”

Seattle is leaning into fan engagement. “I’ve always said when you listen to your fans, you can’t go wrong,” Leiweke says. “We have a chance here, with the time we have, with the leadership team we have, with the incredible interest of the fans, to do it a little differently than anyone’s ever done it.”

They’re in the final stages of launching a fan portal that will allow for input on, well, everything. After all, this is the same city where the MLS franchise allows its fans to vote on a GM.

“The fans are going to be involved in every decision,” Leiweke says. “We can’t have a fan vote on the general manager, but we’re going to glean from the fans some things that might be enlightening as we interview the general manager, and we’ll do that on every subject matter.”

Adds Tippett: “We have a tech committee that’s talking about how we’re going to interact with fans in game. Everything from ordering food to going on your phone and figuring out where the shortest line is to go to the bathroom.”

Nailing the game presentation is important, and they want to curate an experience that is authentic to the city. Neighboring the arena is KEXP, one of the most successful public radio stations in the world. Lewieke began discussions about working with the station, and eventually discussed a partnership. “They’re going to handcraft the music, from walk-in to warm-up to the anthem, to goal songs, to victory songs,” Leiweke says. “I mean, it’s just cool. They’re totally stoked up to do it.”

The fan portal will include voting on the one area everyone seems to care most about: the team name. The team already has had about six serious brainstorming sessions during which they go through name options.

“I’ve been in some of those meetings, and I kind of sit there as they go through some things and they look at me,” Tippett says. “‘Would a hockey player wear that? Would a hockey player like that?’ I say, ‘That’s good,’ or, ‘I’d back away from that one.’ There’s some names that I think sound all right, but they go through the entire branding part of it and you realize, ehh, maybe not. There are other ones that don’t sound right, but they go through the whole story of it and I go, ‘Hey, maybe.'”

Says Leiweke: “The name, at end of the day, rests with David Bonderman. We’re gathering input, but sometimes fans also want to be led. There might be some names that haven’t been out there because we’re marshaling really powerful thought leaders on this.”


Youth hockey growth

One aspect of the franchise that has been understated is the practice facility, which will sit by the Northgate Mall. Built in 1950, it was one of the first major indoor shopping centers in America. But, characteristic of an evolving retail industry, foot traffic is drying up as department stores have closed. According to Scholes, with the Downtown Seattle Association, the addition of the practice facility will be “transformative.” “It will really be catalytic to attracting further investments,” he says.

Another group thrilled by the new facility: the youth hockey community. “You don’t sell 30,000 tickets without some level of enthusiasm,” says Donna Kaufman, USA Hockey’s vice president and Junior Council chair.

There’s bustling interest in hockey, which is capped by the lack of facilities. Frankly, it’s expensive to build in the city. When Kaufman first became involved in the Tacoma Youth Ice Hockey Association in 1992, there were only nine sheets of ice in the entire state. Now there are 10 to 15 sheets, depending on how you count. “Every organization is pretty well maxed of what they can do,” she says. “Youth hockey will only grow by as many rinks that we have now.”

Every American city the NHL has entered has seen a jolt of youth hockey participation. Seattle is feeling it already. In Tacoma, Kaufman said 40 attended the learn-to-play session last season. This fall there were 80. “We’re hearing the same thing in Seattle,” she says. “And the team wasn’t even here yet — we didn’t even know until December that it was official.”

According to USA Hockey, there were 4,405 registered players in the state in 2017-18, including 1,389 boys and 355 girls. Those figures are expected to grow. The three sheets of ice at the practice facility are going to be a boon. “Other than the three or four hours a day that we need it, those sheets will be all open,” Tippett says.

“We don’t want to come over [and] take anything over — we just want to be a partner and help grow the game with everybody.”

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