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Seattle NHL expansion team is payoff for leader of grassroots effort

Barr, who created website advocating for hockey in city, says sport 'made a believer out of me'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

A Seattle expansion team will play in the NHL starting in 2021-22. NHL.com is posting a series of stories this month about the NHL Seattle organization, the local hockey scene and the city's rich hockey history.

Today, John Barr, creator of NHLtoSeattle.com.

 

SEATTLE -- The header of the NHL Seattle Twitter page says, "YOU SPOKE, AND THE WORLD HEARD. THANK YOU, FANS!"

But scroll down, and you'll see the team thanked one fan in particular Dec. 5, the day after the NHL Board of Governors approved Seattle's expansion application.

 

[RELATED: Seattle expansion frequently asked questions]

 

John Barr, creator of NHLtoSeattle.com and leader of the grassroots effort.

"Congratulations, John," the tweet said. "We owe you all the stick taps."

Tweet from @NHLSeattle_: On behalf of #NHLSeattle, thank you John Barr for your relentless passion for bringing the NHL to Seattle.Congratulations, John. We owe you all the stick taps. 🏒 #ReturnToHockey @NHLtoSeattle pic.twitter.com/16i5bNTfda

The Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League retweeted it. Oak View Group, the company redeveloping the former KeyArena, quoted the tweet and added its own thank you from its Seattle account. So did the Western Washington Female Hockey Association and others.

Barr quoted the tweet too. He said it made him cry. He thanked his 11,000 followers for being part of the journey and told them they had fueled his conviction.

"I get teary-eyed all the time, because I've never wanted to get ahead of it," Barr said. "There's been a couple dark days here in this journey, and it's like, 'What if this never happens? Then what?'"

Well, it has happened now, with his help.

This is someone who discovered hockey because of an NHL expansion team, grew a passion for it and wants others to have a similar experience.

Barr, 45, was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Oakland, California, loving baseball. When the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991, he wasn't hooked right away. He had just left to go to the University of Nevada, Reno.

Then the Sharks made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1993-94.

"I was like, 'Oh, my god. This sport is amazing'," he said.

Video: Bettman announces Seattle to become 32nd franchise

Barr kept watching the playoffs even after the Sharks were eliminated. He paid attention to the regular season in 1994-95. When the Sharks made the playoffs again, he got to go to a game in San Jose, and that was it. He was a hockey guy.

When Reno built a rink a few years later, he started playing at age 26. In 2004, he moved to Seattle and signed up for a hockey clinic right away. To him, the city had lots of ice on which to play and tons of potential to support an NHL team.

He emailed John Buccigross, who wrote a weekly mailbag column at ESPN.com.

"I'm like, 'Hey, what do you think about Seattle as a market?'" he said. "He's like, 'Oh, I love Seattle blah, blah, blah.' Answered it in his mailbag. It kind of inspired me even more."

Barr worked for Microsoft. On one project, he met Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis over email. When the NHL launched its Xbox Live app in 2013, he handled the portfolio.

"I'd always advocate for hockey," he said.

In more ways than one. What about an NHL team in Seattle?

Video: Seattle watches as they receive their new NHL team

"I'd bore people to death about it," he said. "I'd talk about it in hockey circles. I think I even had a small friend email distribution list where I'd talk about it with them and share kind of what's going on if there'd be any news."

Barr created NHLtoSeattle.com in early 2013. In the fall of 2014, he left Microsoft and became a consultant, so he would have more flexibility to devote time the cause.

Over time, he grew his presence on Twitter and Facebook. He sold stickers, then T-shirts, then asked people to wear their T-shirts to NHL arenas and send him pictures to post on his site. He has photos from fans in 25 NHL arenas across North America.

When the Vegas Golden Knights played their inaugural home opener Oct. 10, 2017, Barr was there in a Seattle Metropolitans jersey, representing the Pacific Coast Hockey Association team that made Seattle the first U.S. city to win the Stanley Cup a century before. Whom did he stop on the red carpet? NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

"I said, like, 'We're working on the arena. We're going to figure it out,'" Barr said. "I said 'we,' just the collective 'we,' but I didn't tell him anything [about] what I did. And he's like, 'I heard that.' And he knew what the sweater was right away. I'm like, 'Yeah, we'll get it done' or something like that."

Barr went to Seattle City Council meetings about the arena and got others to go too, while organizing events and coaching beginners as a volunteer for the WWFHA.

On Feb. 28, he was at The Angry Beaver hockey bar with Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke and Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a member of the prospective ownership group. On March 1, he was with them for a photo shoot at the Space Needle. The season ticket drive had started at 10 a.m. By 11, fans had made 24,000 deposits.

"The staging area was the Space Needle gift shop," Barr said. "I see Tim and Jerry kind of like looking at their phones like, 'Holy [cow].'"

Barr was at Chihuly Garden and Glass when NHL Seattle announced Tod Leiweke as CEO on April 11. He was at Henry's Tavern in Seattle for the expansion announcement party Dec. 4 and at the arena groundbreaking ceremony the next day. People came up to offer congratulations, a handshake, a hug, a high-five.

It was real, surreal.

"I want this to be a smashing success," Barr said. "I want it to showcase what this can be to the League and also to the city."

In the end, why does Barr believe? Why pour so much time, energy and emotion into it, not to mention maybe $30,000 of his own money over the years?

"I love Seattle, and Seattle is big enough and affluent enough to support a hockey team, so I believe it's got the requirements," he said. "But it's more hockey that I believe in, because it's made a believer out of me."

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