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Seattle NHL expansion team energized on one-year anniversary

Making strides in ticket sales, building organization ahead of debut in 2021-22 season

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

It has been one year since the NHL announced expansion to Seattle on Dec. 4, 2018.

The arena is under construction. The team has no name, logo or colors, let alone coaches or players. It won't begin play until 2021-22. 

Yet, since Oct. 30, the first season-ticket depositors have been visiting a preview center about half a block from the arena to make three-, five- and seven-year commitments to club seats. There has been so much demand that the preview center has opened on Saturdays.

NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke has greeted them in the preview center, shaking their hands and picking their brains. What do they want the name to be? How do they want the logo to look? What excites them about the arena?

"It's just so heartening," Leiweke said. "Many of them are hockey fans, but many of them are not. They're coming in because they sense something big is about to happen in their town, and they want to be a part of it."

Once club seats are assigned, NHL Seattle will move on to general seats. It's thinking of ways to accommodate as many fans as possible, because the waiting list has grown to 30,000 beyond the 32,000 who made season-ticket deposits. The arena will hold 17,400 for hockey.

"They're ultimately making the greatest leap of faith, and it's their passion and inspiration which is driving us," Leiweke said. "It sounds corny, but it is so fantastic. It's the stuff I've worked for my whole life. Fans who believe can make amazing things happen. It's a thrill to work for these fans."

It has been a blur over the past year.

The arena has become an engineering marvel just for the way it is being constructed. The team has hired a general manager, Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis, and started putting together a cutting-edge hockey operations department.

And much more is coming soon.

NHL Seattle hopes to announce the team name in the first quarter of 2020. It hopes to break ground on a new practice facility, which will be more than a practice facility, in February.

An American Hockey League affiliate, another new arena and another new practice facility are on the way in Palm Springs, California, too.

"This is, right now, for many of us, seven days a week," Leiweke said. "It's one of those moments in life where it's all encompassing, but what's on the other end of this is something great for this city."

What's happening now is laying the foundation for a franchise.

"It's a unique challenge," Francis said. "It's a daunting task, but I've got to tell you: It's absolutely thrilling to have this opportunity to do this and create something from the ground up."

* * * * *

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made the expansion announcement at a Board of Governors meeting in Sea Island, Georgia.

The next day in Seattle, dignitaries turned dirt with silver shovels outside the former KeyArena. Leiweke emphasized that this would not be a renovation of the old arena. This would be a new arena under an iconic roof.

The original arena was built for the 1962 World's Fair. Much of it was subterranean, and its roof had a distinct design and low profile that fit into the surroundings in Seattle Center, a park-like campus of culture attractions including the Space Needle.

So many moments happened under that roof, including in hockey.

The first sporting event at the original arena was an exhibition between the Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League and the Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs on Sept. 30, 1964.

The Totems played the Soviet Union there on Dec. 25, 1972, in the first game between a pro team and the Soviet Union in the United States, and then defeated the Soviets there on Jan. 5, 1974.

The Seattle Thunderbirds of the junior WHL played there for years and hosted the Memorial Cup there in 1992.

To preserve all of that history and character, the 44-million-pound roof has been taken off its footings and supported by 72 temporary steel columns, plus crossbeams and a special buttress called a "kickstand" to guard against earthquakes during construction.

The kickstand installation was completed Nov. 19. Leiweke called it a miracle.

"It really validated a lot of hard work by engineers and an enormous amount of hard work by contractors, and there were some folks over on the side with tears in their eyes," Leiweke said. "It was really a huge milestone, and now they're liberated to excavate like heck."

The old arena has been demolished underneath the roof, and workers are removing 6,000 cubic yards of dirt per day to dig the floor even deeper than it already was, to 53-70 feet below grade. The New Arena at Seattle Center, as it is named for now, will be 750,000 square feet and state of the art.

"It's just tons and tons of dirt coming out on a daily basis," Leiweke said. "We're hauling overnight. But the hole is getting deeper, and at some point in time, we get to the bottom of that hole, and we then start to build the building up and someday reattach those footings.

"And that will be the second extraordinary milestone, is when the building goes back under the footings that were installed when it was built."

Steel is being ordered for the practice facility at the Northgate shopping era in Seattle, except NHL Seattle isn't calling it a practice facility.

The label doesn't do it justice. The 180,000-square-foot building will have modern amenities for the NHL team and the locals alike, with three ice sheets, lots of seats and ample parking. NHL practices will be open to the public.

"We've been calling it sort of the 'gateway center,' " Leiweke said. "It'll be the NHL gateway to attracting players, retaining players, building new amateur players -- both adult and youth. It'll be a gateway for (season-ticket) membership."

Meanwhile, the Oak View Group, the company building the New Arena at Seattle Center, will build the 10,000-seat New Arena at Agua Caliente in downtown Palm Springs and a practice facility near the airport there. Leiweke said ground will be broken probably in February.

"We're optimistic that when we get into the market and start pushing that there will be thousands and thousands of full season-ticket holders, that we can create something special there," Leiweke said. "Ron Francis' only concern was the prospect of calling a player up and the player saying, 'I'm not sure. It's pretty nice down here'."

* * * * *

When Commissioner Bettman said the magic word "Seattle" a year ago, hundreds of fans packed Henry's Tavern at an official watch party in Seattle.

Among them was Alexandra Mandrycky, then a hockey operations analyst with the Minnesota Wild. She wasn't angling for another job, just observing and supporting friends in the Seattle hockey community. She had lived in Seattle at least part time for 4 ½ years by then after her husband, Christian, had gone to graduate school at the University of Washington.

"I mean, it's a monumental day for the League, and just to watch the bar erupt was …" she said, her voice trailing off as she searched for the right word. "If you were there, you know the feeling there was crazy. It was just so exciting. People were crying. It was awesome."

Funny to look back on that now. Mandrycky became NHL Seattle's first hockey operations hire June 23, with the title of director of hockey strategy and research.

Francis followed July 18.

"I've been a GM before," said Francis, who was general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes from 2014-18. "But you walk into an organization, a lot of people are already in place. A lot of your structure and the things you use are in place. In Seattle, the beauty of this is, you've got a blank slate."

One day, Francis and Mandrycky found themselves in the office, just the two of them, the entire hockey operations department, talking about embarking on their first scouting missions. They didn't have a scouting platform, a system of rating players and compiling the data. They didn't have anyone to make travel arrangements or credential requests.

"We have nothing," Francis said. "So we have to build everything."

NHL Seattle decided to use RinkNet from HockeyTech, a scouting management system used throughout the hockey world. But it wasn't that simple. You can download Microsoft Excel, but then you have to create your own spreadsheets and enter your own data, right?

"It's stuff that you take for granted when you're at an existing organization," Mandrycky said. "In terms of rolling out the scouting platform, you have to figure out, 'What are we looking for in players? How are we going to rate them?' You can go on a scale of 1 to 100. You can go on a scale of 1 to 1,000. You could do letter grades. There's a lot of different ways to categorize players.

"So we laid out an initial blueprint, and I think probably two weeks later we had already changed it. So it's an evolving process, and I'm sure as we add more diverse viewpoints and backgrounds, we're going to keep on changing it up until puck drop and after."

NHL Seattle announced the hiring of assistant general manager Ricky Olczyk on Sept. 3; pro scouts Stu Barnes, John Goodwin, Cammi Granato, Dave Hunter and Ulf Samuelsson on Sept. 24; and quantitative analyst Dani Chu on Nov. 1. 

Granato is the only female pro scout in the NHL.

"A big thing for us has been diversity and inclusion," Leiweke said. "Fifty percent of our vice presidents are female. I think we're going to end up with an organization here that is going to be different and look different, and it's ultimately going to look like the market we're serving. Seattle really places high value on diversity, and so I'm very proud of the gender and racial diversity that is starting to really present itself here."

Chu had offers from teams in multiple leagues and chose NHL Seattle. He won't start until January, though, after he graduates with a Master of Science in Statistics from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Francis embraced analytics in Carolina and was ready when the owners grilled him on the subject during his interview with Seattle.

"He's got innovation running through his blood," Leiweke said. "He really wants to get that side of the house right. When you have somebody who certainly understands talent and I think has the golden gut embracing technology on the other side of the house, it's very encouraging."

* * * * *

Mandrycky and Francis had more than a blank slate when they arrived in Seattle. They had blank walls.

"When you walk into most NHL offices, they have pictures of their team playing, and we don't have that," Mandrycky said with a laugh. "So what are we going to do, put up pictures of, like, the Vancouver Canucks? No."

They have put up pictures of the Seattle Metropolitans, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association team that played from 1915-24 and defeated the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey Association in 1917, making Seattle the first team in the United States to win the Stanley Cup a few months before the NHL was born.

They have put up pictures of the Totems, generic hockey pictures and televisions, and they're setting up the war room where, Mandrycky said, "those expansion draft decisions and all the fun conversations are going to happen."

NHL Seattle is thinking about the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft already, but more in terms of how it will approach the draft than which specific players it will select at this point. 

"I promise you who we're looking at now and who we look at in June of '21 is going to be dramatically different," Francis said. "That's just the reality of it.

"But I think it's more about the process of understanding what we want to do and how we want to go about it, so when we get to that point, we're prepared to make the tough decisions we want to make and make them quickly in that short window we have."

For now, the next step for hockey ops is to scout players and build the database.

"We got excited when we hit 100 reports, where some teams are in the tens of thousands, if not more," Mandrycky said.

After that, it's continuing to build the department. 

Mandrycky said the team has received about 600 applications for three open jobs in hockey ops -- developer, data engineer and quantitative analyst -- benefitting from the deep pool of talent in Seattle's tech community.

Francis said the team wants its entire amateur scouting staff in place in the summer of 2020, a year ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft. It wants to hire an equipment manager and an athletic trainer then too, because they will have to order supplies and set up operations at the NHL and AHL levels.

The coaches likely will come in 2021.

"We're comfortable waiting, because you never know what's going to happen leading up to June of that year," Francis said.

As for the business side, the name, logo and colors are critical. On Oct. 21, NHL Seattle placed an envelope containing its five finalists for the name in a time capsule that will be opened on the 100th anniversary of the Space Needle in 2062.

"I'd say the pressure isn't from a timing standpoint," Leiweke said. "It's from ensuring that we get it right from a whole bunch of different perspectives -- the right name, certainly, (but also) the right design, the right brand story, the right legal background work. … We're getting focused on a very select group of names. I think we're going to land on the right thing."

Tweet from @NHLSeattle_: For the @space_needle���s 100th anniversary time capsule, we were honored to contribute a very special object: a sealed envelope containing our final five names. 🤐🤫The capsule will be opened in 2062.

Leiweke said NHL Seattle could assign all the season tickets by the end of this season.

The arenas and practice facilities in Seattle and Palm Springs are scheduled to be finished in 2021. 

The 2021-22 season seems like a long way off. It isn't.

The NHL awarded Las Vegas an expansion franchise on June 22, 2016. The Vegas Golden Knights unveiled their brand, made all their hires, assembled their team, built a practice facility and debuted all by Oct. 6, 2017. But T-Mobile Arena was ready and waiting on the Strip.

"We're going to wake up in not too many more sleeps, and it's going to be 2020," Leiweke said. "We start play in 2021.

"Certainly our friends in Las Vegas know what this is like, but we've got the added piece of building an arena in tandem to launching a team, and so there's a lot that needs to be done. There's a lot that needs to be coordinated and sequenced.

"And given what the fans have done here, only our best works. And so we're not going to leave anything on the ice. We're going to try and build something here that is as special and unique as the fan support we've received."

Photos by Getty, NHL Seattle 

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