The Seattle Kraken are about to metaphorically take the ice at full speed in preparation for their first season, targeted to begin in October.
The National Hockey League’s latest team is about to register the final payment on its $650 million expansion fee, making the Kraken a full franchise with all the rights of the other 31 members. That purchase price already values the new franchise at 11th highest in the NHL, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The money has always been in the bank,” said Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of Oak View Group (OVG), which is overseeing the operation and reconstruction of what is now called Climate Pledge Arena, and whose brother, Tod, is president of the team and an owner, along with David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer.
“There’s timing payments with the league and certain hurdles we had to hit,” Leiweke said. “I think the payment will be made in the next couple of days if it hasn’t been made already. That will allow [general manager] Ron [Francis] the freedom to act like he’s a member of the organization and make trades.”
Francis, 58, a star player for 23 NHL seasons and more recently the GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, has his work cut out for him.
As April turns to May, the Kraken don’t have a head coach or staff, a roster of players, a completed arena to play in, a firm date for when their inaugural season will start, or an American Hockey League affiliate, although that seems to be targeted for a new 10,000-seat arena OVG is overseeing in California’s Coachella Valley, Leiweke said.
The vagaries of the coronavirus have made the expansion draft a moving target, Francis noted. Right now it’s scheduled for June 28. Even the start of the 2021-22 regular season is up for grabs, although the NHL has claimed it intends to open an 82-game campaign next October, after two seasons shortened by the pandemic.
Finally, and not the least of all, until recently, because of COVID-19 restrictions, Francis hasn’t even been able to travel and scout NHL players as prospective draftees. He has been at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., the last few games to view the Arizona Coyotes and their opponents, St. Louis and Minnesota.
Each NHL team has to make two players available for Seattle’s selection. Inevitably, the Kraken’s picks will be compared to the most recent expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Under the watchful eye of veteran hockey operations man George McPhee, who built the fledgling squad through the expansion draft, the Knights three years ago made the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, losing in five games to the Washington Capitals, another team McPhee once helped put together.
Francis said not to expect the impossible. Prior to the 2017 draft, Vegas made a deal with the Penguins to select goaltender Marc-André Fleury, and that helped put the Golden Knights on the map.
Unlike the last draft, “the GMs have had a lot of time to prepare for this,” Francis said.
“The previous expansion draft before Vegas was 2000, so it had been 17 years before Vegas came into the league in expansion,” he added. “A lot of the GMs in place hadn’t been through expansion before. It was a new experience for everybody and a new set of rules. Teams didn’t have as long a runway to prepare. This has only been four years. A lot of those same GMs are still in place. I’m sure they’ve learned a lot, and they’re going to be better prepared to protect themselves against us.”
As far as a head coach is concerned, Francis said he’d prefer someone with NHL experience, but he is wide open at this point; the selection process won’t begin until well after the already delayed 56-game regular season closes. Because of COVID’s spread through the Vancouver Canucks squad, the schedule has been extended until May 19 with four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs to follow. The Colorado Avalanche have also had their last three games postponed because of the coronavirus.
“We’ve been pretty consistent at saying we don’t expect to hire a coaching staff until the end of the second quarter of this year,” he said. “We’re not going to know [who’s available] until the end of the season. Right now, we think it’s prudent to be patient and see who’s all out there.”
To be sure, though hockey operations is set to go into warp speed, other facets of the operation, like arena construction, traffic mitigation and ticket sales, have already been in full gear.
Climate Pledge Arena is on the footprint of the original Seattle Coliseum and refurbished Key Arena, where the NBA’s Supersonics mostly played until moving to Oklahoma City in 2008. It’s at the center of a 74-acre entertainment complex called the Seattle Center that was the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. The monorail that is a transportation feeder into the complex has been purchased by the private owners and is in the process of being refurbished.
“We have seven construction projects going on at the same time,” said Leiweke, noting the cost of the three main components, including the arena, a parking garage and restaurant/event center, at $1.1 billion. “If you were going to write a new playbook on how to start a new team in a new sport, it’s probably going to be this one, because we have the wherewithal to do it.”
To respect historically protected aspects of the original building like the triangular roof, Oak View and its architects dug deeper into the ground while refurbishing a building that is expected to seat 17,100 for hockey and another 1,000 for basketball, should the NBA ever decide to return.
Despite some delays, Leiweke said that he’s told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in their bi-weekly conversations that the building will be ready in October.
“I don’t have a safety net in Seattle, and Gary reminds me of that,” said Leiweke, noting there’s no alternative place in the area for the Kraken to play if the arena isn’t open when the season starts.
Leiweke and Francis were among a group that toured the revamped arena last week. Oh yes, a new training facility is part of the package, too.
“It’s an incredible building,” Francis said. “Our fans are absolutely going to love watching a hockey game in there. We’re more than comfortable that the building is going to be ready when the season should be starting in October. I certainly hope we can open with a full building. I certainly hope by then everybody’s vaccinated, and this pandemic is behind us.”
Before Seattle was awarded the franchise in 2018, the NHL told the prospective owners to secure 10,000 season ticket deposits. The team did that in 12 minutes, with the number eventually increasing to 32,000. That created some ticket-sales headaches.
“They didn’t get through them all even though they split the season tickets up in half-season packages and partnered people together,” Leiweke said. “We still have 8,000 left who put deposits down that we didn’t have tickets to sell to them. And then we have another 65,000 on a waiting list who never got a sniff.”
With 12,000 season-ticket equivalents sold and another 3,000 club seats, that leaves about 2,000 a game to sell on an individual basis once the arena is able to seat fans at full capacity.
“My guess is that those go in 10 minutes,” said Leiweke, whose OVG is concurrently involved in the construction of the $1.1 billion UBS Arena at Belmont Park for the New York Islanders, where tickets are almost sold out for the season, too.
It’s leading to a spectacular start for the NHL in Seattle, and all this without even a team on the ice. Yet.
(This story has been corrected in the ninth paragraph to note Golden Knights first-season trip to the Final occurred three years ago. )