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Seattle NHL expansion team to have 'perfect' arena after rebuild

$800 million project touted at groundbreaking ceremony

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SEATTLE -- This is not a renovation. That was stressed at a groundbreaking ceremony outside the former KeyArena on Wednesday, the day after the NHL Board of Governors awarded Seattle an expansion team.

When Seattle opens its inaugural season in 2021-22, it will be under the same roof built for the 1962 World's Fair, the same roof that has sheltered hockey, basketball, concerts and other events at the foot of the Space Needle.

But it will be in a reimagined, rebuilt, state-of-the-art showplace. Workers will dig deep and lower the floor 15 feet to a total of 58 feet below grade. The arena will be 750,000 square feet and seat 17,400 for hockey, with a steep, intimate bowl.

"We kept this majestic, beautiful roof, and we learned to build a new arena underneath it," Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, the company leading the construction, told the crowd. "Yes, it takes more money. Yes, in order to build a world-class arena that will be top five in the world for music and sports, it means we have to spend an enormous amount of money to make the arena perfect.

"It will be perfect."

It will cost $800 million. Add to that an undetermined amount for a structure next door, $50 million for a parking garage, $75 million for a three-sheet training center in the north of the city and the $650 million NHL expansion fee. 

"I think when this is all said and done, it will be very close to a $2 billion commitment," Leiweke said after the ceremony. 

With no public money.

"You always get a little nervous when the price is as expensive as it is," Leiweke said. "But to get a world-class arena, to honor our commitment to make sure it's privately financed, those were important things here.

"We're going to do well here. By no means are we in a position where we think we're not going to make money here. It's a risk we're taking."

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It's a risk worth taking to the investors, because when season ticket deposits of $500 to $1,000 became available March 1, fans met the goal of 10,000 in 12 minutes. The Oak View Group stopped taking deposits after reaching 32,000 in 31 hours. There were 10,000 names on the waiting list as of Thursday.

NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke, Tim's brother, told the crowd that 5,000 more people signed up Tuesday. That brings the total to 15,000, right?

"I think it's closer to 17,000, but who's counting?" Tod Leiweke said afterward, smiling.

Understand the history here. The NBA's Seattle SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder in 2008. Ever since, fans have been bitter, the city has not had a major league team in a winter sport and KeyArena has been an issue.

Proposals came and went. This time, the new arena hinged on NHL expansion, and NHL expansion hinged on the new arena, and both hinged on the fans' support of a potential NHL team.

Well, the fans showed it, the deals got done and so the new arena is becoming a reality. It will be home to the NHL expansion team, the WNBA's Seattle Storm and major concerts. Maybe more.

"It will be prepared to host the NBA when they're ready to talk to us," Tim Leiweke said after the ceremony.

The groundbreaking was a celebration on a sunny day, the end of a long process.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was there, stirring up a rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was there, wearing a scarf from the Washington Wild Female Hockey Association.

NHL Seattle executives were there. People representing the local hockey community were there, from Seattle of the Western Hockey League to the minor hockey associations to the grassroots effort to bring the NHL to town.

Former SuperSonics player and coach Lenny Wilkens was there too with fans hoping for an NBA team.

But it was just the beginning.

"There's a lot of work in front of us," Tod Leiweke said following the groundbreaking. "We've made a lot of promises. Now we've got to deliver. We've got to deliver a world-class arena and an NHL team, and every day counts."

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