Bringing the NHL to Seattle

SEATTLE -- Randy Yount is walking past the closed 1st Ave Deli Mart in Seattle's SoDo district when he's stopped for a question. He pulls one of his earphones out to listen a little closer.

A visitor wonders if this collection of closed businesses and warehouses is where the new downtown Seattle arena is supposed to go, the one that investor Chris Hansen hopes to build as part of his dream to bring the NBA's Sonics home.

Yount confirms it. He points to the corner where concert venue Showbox Sodo stands, its name in orange neon above an awning, and sweeps his hand toward the blocks of industrial buildings and warehouses.

This is where it would all go, just south of Safeco Field. Really, it's not hard to imagine. There's even a green sign at the closed Mac's Smokehouse that says optimistically it's moving to make room for the new arena.

Then, the vision screeches to a halt.

"I don't think they're going to build it," Yount said.

He's not alone. The current memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Hansen, the city and the county requires that an NBA franchise comes first to get this arena built. The NBA currently isn't interested.

The NHL, on the other hand, is.

"The folks at the hockey league, they're excited about Seattle," Seattle mayor Ed Murray told ESPN.com. "They're excited about getting a team here. They are very curious about how things are going to develop with the arena plans."

Lately, the plans for an arena are getting more crowded. During a recent Vancouver radio interview, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman mentioned that groups in nearby Bellevue and Tukwila are interested in bringing the NHL to Seattle. Whether he meant to cause a stir or not, he did. Especially in mentioning Tukwila, a city just south of Seattle, because it is known more for its mall than any arena aspirations.

It has provided a flicker of hope that there is a new way to bring the NHL to the area.

"All we're doing is listening," Bettman told ESPN.com. "As things stand right now, there's no building. I don't know what speed or not groups are moving at. We're just listening to expressions of interest. People from three different places in greater Seattle are saying 'we're interested and we think we can get a building,' but nobody has a building."

Each of the locations presents unique benefits, but also its own issues.

And none is more complicated than the deal downtown.

Downtown Seattle

Murray has just wrapped up a news conference where he introduced a new parks and recreation superintendent. Based on the multiple rounds of applause from those in attendance, it seems like it was well received.

After the people file out, he sits down in a small conference room on the seventh floor of Seattle City Hall to talk about the possibility of the NHL coming to his city.

When he ran for mayor, he made a commitment that he would follow through on the downtown arena MOU that Hansen had negotiated. Now it's becoming clear -- the MOU in its current form could end up being the roadblock to an NHL team coming to downtown Seattle.

It requires an NBA team first to tap into $200 million in funding and, according to multiple sources, Hansen isn't eager to alter it in the interest of bringing hockey to town first. When contacted for this story, a representative for Hansen said he was out of the country.

Last year, Murray and Hansen spoke at a football game and Murray joked that the conversation lasted a good hour before either realized who the other was. More recently, they met two months ago for a drink.

The idea of bringing hockey to SoDo before basketball has never been discussed between the two.

"He's never brought that subject up," Murray said. "We've not discussed it."

Under the right circumstances, Murray is open to the idea of opening the MOU for changes, but it's not an easy proposition. This is an election year for the Seattle city council and there's political risk bringing the arena debate back to the public now. There's also the risk of lawsuits if the MOU is opened.

That said, Murray isn't completely ruling it out.

"If someone shows me a plan that pencils out financially, I'm open to it," Murray said. "I'm waiting to see if folks come talk to me. I can't gauge it. The world of people who invest in sports teams is not a world I have a lot of exposure to. I can't gauge their interest, all I can say that this is a city that is very interested in bringing teams to Puget Sound."

In commercial real estate magnate Victor Coleman, Murray has an ally in this goal on the NHL side. Coleman wants to own an NHL team and he wants to own it in downtown Seattle. He remains in communication with Hansen to try and make it happen.

"We remained committed to the city of Seattle and to the downtown marketplace," Coleman wrote in an email to ESPN.com. "If people are interested in Bellevue or Tukwila, that is great, but SoDo and downtown Seattle are the premier locations for NHL/NBA franchises."

If the NHL ultimately agrees, it may have to wait to make it happen. It's not realistic to expect the MOU to be opened during an election year, which would delay it until 2016. Factor in lawsuit delays and construction, and an optimistic timetable for the opening of an arena might be 2019 at the earliest.

The city would love to house an NHL expansion team in KeyArena before then, but according to multiple sources, the NHL hasn't shown an appetite to go that route.

As Murray settles into his second year as mayor, this issue becomes one that is more personal than people may realize. He can't control the NBA's interest or whether Hansen is willing to change the MOU, but he can help with permits and making sure things like the environmental impact statements are completed. In the next few weeks, he hopes to have a timeline laid out, with each step the city is taking articulated, so those following have a better understanding of where things stand.

Basically, he's controlling what he can control. He's engaged in this fight.

"I'm the first gay man to be elected the mayor of a major city. I would love to be the mayor who happens to be gay who delivers not one but two sports teams," Murray said. "It would help break down stereotypes about sports and sexual orientation. I have another motivation here."

Tukwila, Washington

About 10 miles south of the SoDo arena district, Tukwila mayor Jim Haggerton sits in the back seat of a gray Ford Taurus. He's giving a tour of his city.

It's a city that hit the hockey world's consciousness when Bettman dropped it into the expansion conversation on Vancouver radio.

According to the Seattle Times, New York investor Ray Bartoszek is targeting a parcel of land south of Boeing Field that is owned by Seattle real estate developer David Sabey, but a source close to Bartoszek said he has had no conversations with Sabey about the land. Bartoszek was first associated with hockey coming to Seattle when he made an effort to purchase the Arizona Coyotes and relocate them. Last spring, he told the Seattle Times that he was interested in pursuing an arena outside of Hansen's SoDo site.

The focus of the mayor's tour is to help show that there's more to Tukwila than the largest mall in the Pacific Northwest. And if you haven't heard of this town, it's OK; neither had the NHL's commissioner when it first surfaced as an option.

It's a city of 19,700 residents, the mayor explains, but that number swells to as many as 170,000 during the day as visitors come to town to work or shop in the mall.

He points to the Family Fun Center, a place for go-karts, batting cages, bumper boats and other entertainment. A few minutes later, it's a golf course built in the 1920s or 30s. Then there's a sports complex, featuring the training facility for the MLS Seattle Sounders. To the left, a river that is great for salmon fishing. There's a flight museum and even a Starbucks made out of shipping containers.

He's proud of it all, you can tell. He moved to Tukwila in 1965 before there was a mall or a freeway. He has lived in a house on a hill overlooking the valley for 42 years. He's in his eighth and final year as the mayor, and he spent 13 years on the city council before that, and nine years on the city's planning commission before that.

"It's a really nice area," he told ESPN.com. "Everything that happens here is all about the location. We're at the crossroads of the freeway, the intersection of two major freeways."

The other advantage? There's land. Lots of it. And compared to neighboring areas, the prices are reasonably cheap. That comes in handy if you're looking to build an arena.

"We still look like a rural area in the middle of a major metropolitan complex," he said. "When you're riding light rail coming south from Seattle, the first greenery you start to see on the hills, you're getting close to Tukwila."

To an outsider, a couple of things stand out. For one, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of residential areas. There's definitely not a mixed-use downtown area; the city is divided by highways that make connecting people on foot a challenge. And it's all very industrial, from the Boeing buildings to the data centers and cold storage buildings.

The positive? This city knows how to get big projects done. Haggerton shared a story about getting rezoning on one project completed in two months, something that might take neighboring cities two years.

Along with the accessibility of highways and light rail, Tukwila has the advantage of speed. If Bettman and the NHL are eager to get to the Seattle area, this is likely the fastest route.

"I think I can make a safe statement that this city could do any major project as fast or faster than anybody else," Haggerton said. "We have a track record of doing that."

Bellevue, Washington

The view is absolutely stunning. Drive up the winding road to Conrad Lee's 1960s home in Bellevue, and it feels like you can reach out into the distance and pick Seattle's Space Needle right out of the ground.

Lee preceded Claudia Balducci as Bellevue mayor and remains a council member for the city that is about 10 miles east of Seattle's downtown stadium district.

Sitting at his dining room table, he spreads out a satellite image map of the city. To his left is a giant window overlooking Bellevue on the right and Seattle on the left.

As he talks, he taps on the table with both hands, kind of like how Don Cherry does when he's making a point on "Coach's Corner." Instead of arguing hockey like Cherry, Lee is making his case for Bellevue as the best place to put an arena.

First, there's the proposed light rail being planned that would carry hockey fans from Seattle through Bellevue and up to Redmond, the home of Microsoft.

And downtown Bellevue is growing, in part because young technology workers don't want to be stuck on a campus. They want to be part of a downtown scene, something Bellevue offers. To Lee, this is just another downtown option for a Seattle-area arena.

There also happens to be a very logical space to put it, according to Lee. Just south of the hospital and east of where the 405 cuts through Bellevue is land that is being underutilized, mostly by car dealerships.

"This is where possibly an arena can be located," Lee told ESPN.com. "When you have a highway going through a business center highly developed and right next to it an unused plan, no residential area, the growth seems to be natural . . . the infrastructure is already taking place."

The Seattle Times reported that a potential arena site is being targeted near the future Sound Transit station.

There are hurdles. In Seattle, Hansen has secured the land where an arena can be built. In Tukwila, there's no shortage of land options that can be had at a reasonable price.

Bellevue? Space is limited and it's not cheap. Also, securing all the land in one area might be challenging for a group of investors, especially if there's a landowner looking to max out profits in the proposed arena area.

"That's the challenge in Bellevue. It's all privately owned," Lee said.

And once the land is acquired, there would be rezoning issues. With that in mind, Lee is asked to give an estimate as to the earliest an arena could open its doors if the NHL granted them a franchise tomorrow.

"[You'd] have the council look at it, they would involve the public. It would take a couple years," he said. And factoring in construction time, "I would say the way it is -- four or five years. Four years. 2019."

Not a hockey town

Tim Pipes knew he was taking a risk when he took the $200,000 he made on Apple stock he bought in 1991 and sunk it into a hockey bar in a city without an NHL team. But the Toronto native took the plunge anyway.

He's the man behind the Angry Beaver, the best hockey bar in Seattle -- admittedly not a crowded competition.

It's a pretty good crowd for a Monday and a Chicago Blackhawks game against the Coyotes has the attention of most of the gathered hockey fans. Walk in and there's a wall on the right entirely covered with hockey sweaters, anchored by a replica of the old Seattle Metropolitans -- America's first Stanley Cup winner.

The words to "O Canada" are painted on another wall, a giant poster of "Strange Brew" fills a wall on the way to the bathroom, and there's a private table in the corner made of hockey sticks. Poutine is on the menu.

The Blackhawks score, a red light at the bar starts flashing and one bar-goer sings out the first few stanzas of "Chelsea Dagger," the Blackhawks' goal song.

Pipes suspected it would work when there was a line of hockey fans outside his door at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the 2014 Olympic gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden. Hundreds packed the place, even though they couldn't start serving alcohol until 6:30 a.m. The shots were lined up when it was legal.

Pipes and his clientele are the extreme -- they want hockey. They want it now, and they'll go to any arena in any part of Seattle to watch it.

"People are dying for it," Pipes said. "I don't think it matters where the NHL lands. I don't think people really care. They just want the NHL to come here."

Down the bar, Rich Pereira is wearing a Logan Couture jersey. He has a Sharks tattoo on one side of his hand. He twists his hand to show an opening for another.

"I'd put a Seattle tattoo on this side," he said.

These are the diehards. If the NHL shows up in a barn an hour outside of town, they'll be there to support it.

But even with the proximity to Canada, this town isn't filled with the diehards. Their amazing support of the Seahawks and the way they've embraced soccer so passionately with the Sounders suggest it's an outstanding sports town.

It's just not a hockey town.

Seattle Thunderbirds owner Russ Farwell has learned this as the owner of a local WHL franchise. He sees more similarities between Seattle and Dallas than Seattle and neighboring Vancouver. If the NHL is coming, it had better come with a plan of attack to build at the grass-roots level, he said.

"That needs to be built," Farwell told ESPN.com. "It's not natural here. You have to understand it. I don't think it's not possible, but to come here and just think we build a rink and throw open the doors and all of a sudden we're going to be playing in front of thousands . . . "

It's not realistic.

It makes picking the right spot for the arena an important decision. There might be casual sports fans who would attend a game downtown who might never consider going out to Tukwila. Or others who'd rather pass completely on fighting the traffic around Bellevue to discover a new sport.

The landscape of the NHL is dotted with unfortunate arena locations -- Arizona, Ottawa and Florida to start -- so this decision isn't one the league is taking lightly or rushing into.

"I think you have to look at that on a market-by-market basis," Bettman said. "You have to look at what the right location is for a particular market. I don't think you can generalize."

Grant Morris had just visited the Mariners' team store when he was walking down 1st Avenue into the area of the proposed Hansen arena.

He stopped at the corner of Massachusetts and 1st to chat about the possibility this spot might one day be the home of an NHL team.

He grew up in Minnesota and is convinced his fellow Seattle sports fans would embrace hockey, given the chance.

There's a pent-up demand for another sports franchise in Seattle. Just look at how much this city supports the Mariners and Seahawks, he said. And because of that, he doesn't believe it needs to exist at the corner at which he's standing.

Just give him and the sports fans of Seattle a chance, he pleads.

"I'll go wherever. I'll go to Tacoma," he said, and he believes he wouldn't be alone. "They'll go. They'll definitely show up. Once they see the NHL, they'll love it."