NHL to Seattle: It will happen, eventually

The NHL is coming to Seattle. It’s not a matter of if.

Unfortunately, the when is where it gets murkier than a typical February day along the Elliott Bay waterfront.

In a city that took 10 years before even deciding to put a shovel in the ground to replace the arterial Alaskan Way Viaduct after it had sustained significant damage in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the “Seattle Process” is the label of the notoriously glacial pace at which deliberation, participation and execution of civic enhancements take place.

In other words, don’t get your hopes up for a brand-new Starbucks Center to replace KeyArena in the near future.

Without a permanent tenant since the Sonics’ unceremonious departure in 2008, KeyArena is not financially viable at the major league level in basketball, and it is a downright awful arena to watch hockey in. Before the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds packed up and left for suburban Kent, Wash., in 2009, a challenging and small in-arena footprint made for difficult sightlines and large curtains blocking off an entire end of the rink. That was the preference of former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley, who wanted KeyArena to be retrofitted as an NBA-specific facility that didn’t have to compete with an NHL team for home dates and revenue — highlighted by a discussion in a 2006 Seattle Times article.

All of this makes the fact that the city’s preliminary talks with a private partner to build a new arena have been taking place for eight months an encouraging development (Seattle Times’ story, Feb. 4). Securing an NBA team is the project’s top priority, though with the current financial distress certain NHL teams are under — the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers often are mentioned — a brand new major league facility would slide Seattle to the top of any relocation possibilities.

While recent talks may suggest otherwise, this is likely more of a 7-to-8-year project than a 2-to-3-year project considering the pace at which major infrastructure is erected in this city, though for Mayor Mike McGinn, who sported a 28 percent approval rating a year ago near this time, any considerable effort to begin pulling levers in an attempt to get a new arena privately financed and built could represent a major step in reconnecting with the city’s voters in advance of the 2013 mayoral election. Previous mayor Greg Nickels was faulted for not offering enough resistance to Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett’s quest to relocate the Sonics throughout 2007-08. He finished third in a mayoral primary one year later.

Despite five potential major league franchises in the city — the Sounders of MLS outdraw all but the Seahawks and receive year-round front-page coverage in local newspapers — the Puget Sound has the potential to be a successful NHL market despite being an area that has plenty of music, art and outdoor entertainment options that don’t necessarily require shelling out hundreds of dollars. As the second-most literate city in the United States, Seattle is home to many passionate yet discerning sports fans with other interests. So, perhaps in an effort to give off more of a broader-use appeal, there are those who try not to refer to the project as an “arena.”

Ian Furness, KJR-AM sports talk show host and Root Sports hockey play by play broadcaster, said of the proposed venture, “As we like to try and call it here in Seattle, a ‘multi-purpose facility.’ ” His interview Wednesday with McGinn references the challenges presented by Initiative 91, a directive passed by voters in 2006 that stipulates the city cannot support professional sports teams unless such investments result in a profit.

“For McGinn, the challenge is to find the balance between doing what’s right for the city, which could be an economic boost for the city, especially the South Seattle area — the SoDo area — by having this arena built, but at the same time, not alienating a large group of voters and constituents and city council members. It’s a tough balancing act that he’s trying to walk,” Furness said.

“It’s really a dangerous place for him to go. It’s always hard to tell if it’s a vocal minority that is really a motivated minority in terms of being anti-sports and anti-arenas, or is it really the majority speaking?”

There are several built-in advantages that Seattle possesses over several recent cities that gained an NHL team through expansion or relocation. There’s already a high number of Canadians living and working in Seattle, which is situated just more than two hours south of (and would share a heated rivalry with) Vancouver. There are two established major junior teams — the WHL’s Thunderbirds, who produced Petr Nedved and Patrick Marleau, and the Everett Silvertips, who hosted more than 7,200 fans for a Coyotes-Lightning exhibition on a Tuesday night 25 miles north of the city in September 2009. On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s not uncommon for a total of 13,000 to 15,000 people to take in junior hockey throughout the metropolitan area. The area already has won the Stanley Cup, with the Seattle Metropolitans completing their 1917 dream season with a three-games-to-one series win over the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s also one of the wealthier cities in the United States, and with eight Fortune 500 companies spread throughout the tech-minded urban area and the leafy Bellevue and Redmond suburbs, there’s no dearth of potential for advertisements and corporate alignments.

But is there enough green in the Emerald City to support five major professional teams?

“Million dollar question. Honestly, the million dollar question,” Furness said. “I want to say yes, as a native and as someone who grew up here and grew up a fan of all those sports. Really all five, if you want to include the soccer team — I want to believe it. I’m not sure if it’s reality. I’m not sure how many cities really can do that in this day and age. We’re a top-15 media market; we’re a big city. There are almost four million people within driving distance of Seattle that could get to games. There’s a large population base to draw from.

“I’d like to think so. I think it’ll be challenging. I think there will be a honeymoon period for a while with the hockey team and the NBA team if those teams were to come. And I believe if they do come, they’ll have to come together. That seems to be the general feeling up here. You’d have to have not just one but both to make the arena viable. I think the team that would probably pay the price, to be honest with you, is the Mariners. And they’re already paying the price. Their product has been sub-par for basically 29 of 35 years, and they’re probably the team that would pay the price the most.”

We’ll contain our excitement until the shovels hit the ground and cranes starting to line up along Edgar Martinez Drive. Despite the recent developments, knowing the reluctance of public support of private ventures and the pace at which major projects in the city take place, the Coyotes already will be well into their rebranding as the Quebec Nordiques when this new facility finally is erected.

So which NHL teams will be relocation-prone when Seattle finally becomes a viable option in 2019?

SANFORD TO THE RESCUE?

One of the more unlikely stories of the 2011-12 season has been how journeyman goaltender Curtis Sanford has seized a spot with the Columbus Blue Jackets, offering consistency night in and night out in net for the team with the fewest points in the NHL. Including Thursday’s loss to Dallas, Sanford boasts a more-than-respectable 2.52 goals against average, .915 save percentage and 10-13-4 record for a team that does often not provide him with an equal opportunity to win a hockey game.

An AHL goaltender with the Manitoba Moose and Hamilton Bulldogs for much of the previous two and a half seasons, Sanford’s most consistent NHL experience prior to this year came between 2005-07, when he made 65 appearances with the St. Louis Blues, winning 21 games over a two-year span. A two-year starter for the OHL’s Owen Sound Platers from 1998-2000, the late-blooming Sanford never posted a save percentage of .900 or goals against average below 3.80 in junior hockey. He was undrafted before signing a free-agent contract with St. Louis in his 20-year-old OHL season. He’s had to earn every minute of playing time since — and he’s done just that in Columbus this season.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming into camp,” Sanford said. “It was just kind of a wait-and-see approach, and I just wanted to come to camp and put my best foot forward. Obviously I was signed to a two-way contract, and I think a lot of people had me pegged going to [Springfield], but things happen and I was just ready.”

Two of the variables that led to increased playing time for Sanford were Steve Mason’s uninspiring start to the season, followed by Mason suffering a concussion during a November morning skate after taking a Rick Nash shot off the mask. It hasn’t been a hallmark season for Mason, the 23-year-old former Calder Trophy winner, who has only five wins to his name.

“You don’t want to see guys get injured, but sometimes that’s how people get their opportunities,” Sanford said. “That’s how I got mine this year, and I was just trying to do anything to make sure I did the most with it.”

Though Sanford’s name has surfaced as a potential trade target to bolster a team with playoff aspirations, he’s not necessarily looking to go anywhere. “This is where I want to play, and Columbus gave me a good opportunity,” he said.

“I’ve never been traded. I’ve always been kind of a guy that’s switched teams in the offseason. I think everybody’s name is probably linked to a rumor or two this time of year.”

He also could be a somewhat low-cost alternative for teams with high aspirations held back by inconsistent goaltending — Chicago and Tampa Bay come to mind. Should there be any discussion with the Blue Jackets about a possible extension past this season, Sanford would listen — despite the major challenges the team has faced in a season in which the organization was expected to take a step forward.

“Obviously it’s been a tough year for our team,” Sanford said. “We got off to a pretty slow start, and I think [Mason] really took it personally. I think the media kind of got after him a little bit, but I’ve been just trying to be there for him. It’s been a tough year for everybody in here, but as long as we’re here, we’re caring for each other. As people, I think that’s all we can do for each other.”

BIG PLANS FOR THE BIG HOUSE

Hockey’s worst-kept secret was revealed at a Detroit news conference Thursday when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the 2013 Winter Classic would be held at the 107,501 capacity Michigan Stadium, pitting the Detroit Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The game shouldn’t have any problem in breaking the all-time record hockey crowd of 104,173 on Dec. 11, 2010, when Michigan defeated in-state CCHA rival Michigan State 5-0 inside the Big House.

“I think we’re probably on a better time table than we were in prior years,” Bettman said about the event’s planning in Anaheim last month.

The annual Great Lakes Invitational collegiate tournament would be held at a rink set up inside Comerica Park, where it would pit tournament fixtures Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech with invitee Western Michigan the week before the Winter Classic. An AHL game between Grand Rapids and Toronto, as well as OHL matchups featuring Saginaw, Plymouth, Windsor and London also would enhance the Detroit-Toronto rivalry and draw thousands of fans from Michigan and southwestern Ontario to economically challenged Detroit.

Particulars concerning leasing Michigan Stadium from the University of Michigan for $3 million were minor delays, as reported by Jeff Arnold of Puck Daddy, as well as the need for University of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon to submit a request to university regents and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to exercise a one-day liquor license.

Though there will be some empty seats at Comerica Park for GLI and OHL games, the actual Winter Classic should be an easy sell as it pits, according to Toronto general manager Brian Burke, “Hockeytown against the Center of the Hockey Universe.”

This is a welcome development for a game model that has become increasingly replicated, if not stale over the past several years. Similar to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, Michigan Stadium has an iconic legacy that hopefully should draw more fence-sitting viewers who may be interested in watching the largest crowd ever to take part in a hockey game — with a sprinkling of national pride on the line. It also should be easily the most neutral Winter Classic, as it isn’t out of the question to expect a good 40,000 or 50,000 Ontarians — perhaps more — to make the drive west on Highway 401.

“Go Blue” takes on a completely different meeting on Jan. 1, 2013.

GAME OF THE WEEKEND

Nashville Predators at Boston Bruins
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET
FOX Sports Tennessee

Oh, so this is what happens when the defensively stingy Predators average a league-best 3.25 goals per game over a 16-game stretch: they go 12-3-1 as part of a two-month surge that has lifted them into fifth place in the Western Conference and into a dogfight for the most hotly contested division in hockey. The Bruins are right on Nashville’s heels by averaging 3.24 goals per game in 2012, though it’s a touch off their season output to this point. Boston is only 7-7-1 since beating Calgary 9-0 at home on Jan. 5, but they’re a solid pick at home in what should be an entertaining Saturday matinee at the TD Garden.