When the NHL released its approved realignment plan for the upcoming season in March 2013, the most obvious takeaway was the lopsided conferences. The Eastern Conference – home to the newly christened Metropolitan Division – with 16, and the Western Conference with 14. Having just enjoyed record TV ratings and surging popularity, even after an almost cataclysmic work stoppage, the NHL will almost certainly look to expand its sphere of influence.
As the remains of the Southern hockey expansion continue to smolder ($7-a-game Panthers season tickets, the never-ending Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes debacle), the league will likely look north, to Seattle and Quebec City. There are strong hockey roots in both areas: Quebec City was once home to the Nordiques as recently as 1995, and the Seattle Metropolitans became the first American team to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup in 1917.
To better understand the prospect of a Seattle expansion, I spoke with John Barr, a Seattle resident of seven years and the man behind NHL to Seattle, a blog chronicling the fight for hockey’s return to Washington.
JOHN BARR: Seattle is the twelfth biggest TV market in the United States and is very close to Vancouver to form a natural rivalry. Several Fortune 500 companies are located here so the corporate ecosystem exists, and Seattle is a top five city with the highest average household income compared. Although we don’t have the same youth and adult hockey communities that exist in the Michigan, Minnesota or Massachusetts, Seattle is home of one biggest adult hockey leagues in the country.
You take all those attributes combined, and you are looking at a huge growth potential for the NHL. I am not delusional to think that Seattle will be a top five U.S. hockey town out of the gate, but it will have a strong support base from the beginning. Properly shepherding the NHL locally to non-hockey fans will hook people in who don’t realize what they have been missing.
Which hockey team do you follow now?
I grew up in Oakland, California and moved away the same year the San Jose Sharks expanded to the area. I did not grow up a hockey fan, but started following the Sharks in the playoffs. When the Sharks beat the Wings in 1994, I became a committed fan, and a year later when they beat Calgary, I became a crazed hockey fan. My loyalties are still with the Sharks but feel they would change when Seattle gets a team.
Where do current loyalties lie among Seattle’s hockey fans?
A large percentage of the local hockey fans root for the Canucks, but there are plenty of people from Chicago, Boston and Michigan that make their presence felt come playoff time. I watched a game of the Finals at a local bar that was standing room only, and it seemed about 40 percent Bruins fans, 40 percent Blackhawks fans and about 20 percent of us who just wanted to see a great series.
Which would you prefer, a relocation to Seattle or an expansion, and why?
I would prefer expansion because relocation means that some fans in another city are losing their team. The Raiders left Oakland when I was very young, and I was devastated. Then I saw the Sonics leave Seattle as an adult. It’s not pretty. I don’t care how small fan bases are, it isn’t something I wish on any fan.
Which will come first, a franchise in Seattle or Quebec City?
Early on I expected Seattle and QC to both get expansion teams at the same time. I still think that is the most likely scenario.
If NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman were to hand over control of the Seattle franchise to you, what would it look like (name, sweaters, any promotion ideas, rivalries)?
Great question. I would leave the names and sweaters up to the fans, which in itself is a promotional idea. People love the Metropolitans and the Totems. Not many people know this outside the area, but the first U.S. team to win the Stanley Cup was actually the Seattle Metropolitans. The fans want the team name to be locally relevant just like the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders.
I would design my promotions in two distinct buckets: the Hardcore Hockey fan and Seattle Sports fans. We would be able to reach the hardcore fan via youth hockey events, meet the player autograph signings and 10-game ticket packs. Introducing the game to the already passionate Seattle Sports fan would be the more tricky segment to crack and is key for long-term growth. This could be done by working with local companies to have an Amazon or Microsoft Night where employees at those companies could show their company badge to get a discounted seat for the night. There could even be some staff on site who walks through some of the basic rules like icing, offsides and penalties that most of us hockey fans take for granted. The emphasis will be about lowering any barriers to coming to the game and understanding it.
Vancouver would instantly be the rival, as we already have something brewing between the Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Do you feel a sort of camaraderie with disenfranchised Sonics fans?
Absolutely. We would not be part of the NHL conversation if it wasn’t for the great work that [prospective Seattle Sonics owner, Seattle native] Chris Hansen and the Sonics fans have done on the arena front. The hockey community has been supporting their efforts from the beginning as we realize that we are attached at the hip of their success. I’ve been at city council meetings, rallies and other events with hockey gear on and they could not have been more welcoming to us hockey fans.
You’ve posted a voter’s guide to the primary election on your site. In what way will the candidates you’ve listed facilitate the creation of an NHL franchise in Seattle?
If the candidates I’ve listed are elected, there should be no change to the current plan on moving forward on building a new arena that could house an NBA and NHL franchise. Our current mayor [Mike McGinn] has been a big supporter of the SonicsArena efforts and led the early discussions that got us to a point we are now with a city and county council approved Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the new arena. If elected, one of the mayor’s opponents will do what he can to reverse the approval. This could cause some delays and squander an opportunity for expansion if the arena support is in doubt.
Can the KeyArena be a serviceable hockey arena?
It can work on a temporary basis. I’ve seen the Seattle Thunderbirds play there when they still played in the city, and it is fine to watch a game but just isn’t a modern facility. It can seat 11,000 to 14,000 and just doesn’t have the same energy that fans and teams get when they play at TD Garden, Excel Energy or Madison Square Garden.
How can hockey fans best support your cause?
I would love hockey fans from outside the area to understand the potential of the market. It has all the key elements to see explosive growth for an NHL franchise, and if someone needs proof, they should just look at what the Seattle Sounders have done in their brief history in the MLS.