The unexpected success of the first-year Golden Knights has had ripple effects that reach well beyond the hockey oasis known as Las Vegas.
Their speed has advanced a trend. Their ability to coax big production from players who had small roles elsewhere should lead teams to be more patient while developing prospects. Their compassion after 58 people were killed and more than 800 injured at a music festival in Las Vegas last Oct. 1 exemplified how a sports team should react in the face of tragedy. They’ve made T-Mobile Arena a hostile place for visitors and it will be rocking again Wednesday when they try to tip the Western Conference final in their favor after splitting the first two games against the Jets at Winnipeg.
In short, the Golden Knights have set a formidable standard for the NHL’s next expansion franchise, which is all but sure to be awarded to Seattle for a debut in 2020-21. For Tim and Tod Leiweke, who are, respectively, leading the Seattle bid and overseeing operations for the prospective 32nd NHL team, Vegas will be an extremely tough act to follow.
“I don’t think that necessarily their success guarantees ours. I think their success comes from having really smart people,” said Tod Leiweke, whose resume includes being No. 2 in command at the NFL before he joined Seattle Hockey Partners to work with owners David Bonderman, a billionaire businessman, and TV/movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
“I think George McPhee is an absolutely fantastic general manager with a proven track record,” he said of Vegas’ general manager. “So I think the pressure is on us to replicate what they’ve done and to hire great people and then to make sure that they’ve got the structure around them and the support around them.”
Tim Leiweke, a former Kings and AEG executive, heads the Oak View Group, which plans to gut KeyArena — except its iconic roof — to build a bigger, grander version. He admires Vegas’ feats and played a role in their history: While with AEG he was involved in the vision and creation of the partnership between AEG and MGM Resorts International to build an arena before the team existed.
“I think AEG has been fantastic at the risk they took, the way they built it and the success they’ve had at selling it and booking it, and both they and MGM deserve the run they’re on,” Tim Leiweke said. “But I’d agree with Tod. I think George McPhee has done one of the great jobs in the history of the National Hockey League and that’s going to be very, very hard to replicate going forward.”
It will help that the next expansion team will have the same generous draft rules Vegas had. Existing teams were allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters and a goalie; both combinations left talent available. The salary cap will rise, but there will be cap-strapped teams that will have to let go of stars, as Pittsburgh made goalie Marc-Andre Fleury available to Vegas. McPhee also made clever deals in which he agreed to not claim a specific player in exchange for receiving another player or draft pick. “I think they’ve done many, many things right there and that’s a helpful blueprint for us,” Tod Leiweke said.
Authorized by the NHL to conduct a season-ticket drive to gauge interest, Oak View said it received 10,000 deposits for season tickets in the first 12 minutes of availability. Deposits topped 33,000, and a waiting list was started. “I think that everyone associated with the NHL was impressed,” said Tod Leiweke, a former chief executive of the Seattle Seahawks.
Tim Leiweke said he anticipates no difficulty selling the arena’s naming rights, a lucrative revenue source. “I’ve been doing this 40 years and have had 18 different facilities that I’ve had the good fortune to be part of developing,” he said, “and this is the first time we’ve had people chasing us for naming rights. We expect we’re going to do well.”
Many steps remain before fans can craft draft strategy and debate the team’s name. There’s sentiment for honoring the Seattle Metropolitans, who in 1917 were the first U.S.-based team to win the Stanley Cup, and for reviving the name of the old Western Hockey League Totems.
The Leiwekes and others with the Seattle group recently met with NHL representatives to discuss the design of the arena, which will accommodate an NBA team. It would be foolish not to provide for that possibility even though the NBA hasn’t accepted expansion applications. Tim Leiweke said his group will “follow the lead” of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in that regard.
Demolition work on the old arena is scheduled to begin Oct. 7. Tim Leiweke said they’re on time but slightly over their $660-million budget. NHL executives will continue to weigh ticket and sponsor interest and are scheduled to meet again in mid-summer. “My guess is that this is not going to be approved by then because we still have work to do with the city and work to do with getting all of our agreements in place, but I think those will all be done in short order,” he said.
“I think Seattle is the single-most amazing, brilliant marketplace today in North America without a winter sports franchise. It is a city dying, ultimately, to have that activity and a team that represents them and engages on the fans’ behalf. It is a marketplace that needed a solution on the arena and like a lot of other places, it was never a question of the marketplace, its fans, or the potential. It was always a question of trying to get the arena built.”