Seattle and the NHL?

This article was originally published in the March-April 2006 issue of NW Hockey Report.


Citation:  Obermeyer, Jeff.  “Seattle and the NHL:  So Close Yet So Far Away.”  NW Hockey Report 4, no. 3 (2006):  8, 20.


            Whenever I talk to fans in the Northwest about hockey one question is invariably asked:  “Why isn’t there an NHL team in Seattle?”  It’s a simple question with a long, complicated answer.    

            The Seattle-Tacoma region is the 12th largest television market in the United States according to figures published by Nielsen Market Research for the 2003-04 television season, making it the second largest market in the country without an NHL team (Houston is the other).  The region has a long and proud hockey tradition, beginning with the Metropolitans in 1915 and continuing almost uninterrupted to the Thunderbirds of today.  Seattle has hosted the Stanley Cup Finals twice (1917 and 1919), and the 1917 Metropolitans were the first U.S.-based team to win hockey’s greatest trophy.  Professional, high-level amateur and junior league teams have drawn solid crowds in the city for decades, so why has the NHL stayed away?

Take 1

With the completion of the Coliseum in 1962 as part of the World’s Fair the city had a first-class sports venue.  The Totems of the Western Hockey League played the first sporting event in the facility in the fall of 1964, hosting the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs in an exhibition, and quickly became a solid draw in their new home with crowds frequently in excess of 10,000.  The Totems’ owners made no secret of their interest in acquiring an NHL franchise for the city.

In February of 1965 NHL President Clarence Campbell announced plans for a six-team expansion, doubling the size of the league.  A number of cities were mentioned as prospects but Seattle and Portland, two of the largest draws in all of minor league hockey, were conspicuously absent from the list.  The NHL felt that only cities of “major league status” should be considered and Seattle, lacking other major league sports franchises, didn’t qualify.  Totem president Gene Walby was advised by Campbell not to waste his money on the application fee as Seattle did not merit serious consideration.  In response to the snub the WHL and American Hockey League experimented with an interlocking schedule in hope of eventually merging the two circuits and declaring major league status to go head-to-head with the NHL.  High travel costs and the reduction in lucrative rivalry games quickly ended the merger, leaving local fans to make due with the minors for the foreseeable future.

By the early 1970s the Totems were struggling at the gate.  Three consecutive losing seasons caused the average attendance to drop to around 4,000 fans per game and the team was in dire financial straits.  The Vancouver Canucks purchased a majority interest in the club in 1972 to rescue it from bankruptcy.  Local owners Vince Abbey and Dr. Eldred Barnes retained a stake in the team and also held the right to buy out Vancouver’s should they be awarded an NHL franchise for Seattle in the future.

Fortunately Abbey and Barnes didn’t have to wait long.  There was a hockey war brewing as the upstart World Hockey Association competed with the NHL to get teams into the best open markets as quickly as possible.  The call came on June 12, 1974 when the NHL announced that the Seattle group headed by Abbey had been awarded an expansion team to begin play in the 1976-77 season.  Abbey was now on the clock – a $180,000 deposit was due by the end of 1975 and the total franchise fee was a steep $6 million, plus he still had to repurchase the shares in the Totems held by the Canucks.

Abbey was confident, but he missed a number of deadlines and scrambled to secure financing.  The NHL threatened to pull the franchise as there were a number of other suitors in the wings.  Abbey allegedly passed on an opportunity to purchase a WHA team for $2 million during this period and he missed a golden opportunity to acquire an existing franchise when the Pittsburgh Penguins were sold in a bankruptcy auction for $4.4 million in June of 1975. 

The NHL didn’t feel that Abbey could put together the financing.  The Totems folded following the 1974-75 season and that summer the NHL pulled the expansion franchise from Seattle, leaving the city without hockey for the first time since 1954-55.  However, Abbey wasn’t about to give up and in the fall of 1975 he filed suit against the NHL and the Canucks for anti-trust violations that he alleged prevented him from acquiring a team.  The suit dragged on for over a decade before finally ending in a verdict in favor of the NHL in 1986.

Take 2

The conclusion of the lawsuit seemingly put an end of any hopes of bringing an NHL team to Seattle, but that changed in December of 1989 when the NHL announced a new round of expansion for the 1992-93 season.  Two groups quickly established themselves as contenders for a Seattle franchise.  The first was financed by Microsoft millionaire Chris Larson and led by former Seattle Totem Bill MacFarland.  The other was headed by Bill Ackerley, son of Seattle Supersonics owner Barry Ackerley.  Ackerley had already applied for a franchise and the two camps decided to pool their resources.  While the $50 million expansion fee was much steeper than faced by Abbey 15 years earlier, the group had the money as well as additional funds to cover the necessary operating expenses for the first five seasons.

Things appeared to be proceeding smoothly through the summer and into the fall of 1990.  Larson and MacFarland met with the NHL Board of Directors in October and the Seattle group gave a great presentation.  The directors loved the fact that a Microsoft millionaire was bankrolling the project and that a new state-of-the-art arena was under discussion with the city.  Pat Quinn, who had played under MacFarland on the 1966-67 WHL championship Seattle Totems squad, was particularly helpful and told his former coach that Seattle was a “lock” for a team in the first round of expansion.

            The presentation to the Board of Governors took place on December 5.  The Seattle contingent consisted of four representatives:  MacFarland, Larson, Barry Ackerley, and Bill Lear, a financial advisor for Ackerley.  They met for breakfast and discussed their strategy, then adjourned to a room to await their turn to present. 

            Gil Stein, Vice President and General Counsel of the NHL, came to escort the group to the meeting.  Ackerley then made a strange request.  He asked if he and Lear could speak to the Board first in private before the others did their portion of the presentation.  It was a complete surprise – they had not discussed this over breakfast, but MacFarland and Larson reluctantly agreed.  After all, the application was in Ackerley’s name, so he had the final say.  Ackerley and Lear proceeded to the meeting room with Stein while the others waited nervously for their turn.  Ten minutes later Stein returned with a strange story.  Apparently Ackerley introduced himself to the Board and informed them that the Seattle group was withdrawing its application.  No reason was given.  Ackerley and Lear then left the room through another exit. 

MacFarland and Larson were stunned.  The failure to get an application in their names had proven to be a fatal flaw and gave Ackerley the opportunity to pull the rug out from under them.  The pair were allowed to make their pitch anyway, but they left Florida highly discouraged by the turn of events.  Franchises were eventually awarded to Ottawa and Tampa Bay, though neither group was ever able to come up with the full $50,000,000 fee, a fee the Seattle group was prepared to pay in full.

Today

            The Coliseum underwent an estimated $100 million remodel following the abortive attempt to get an NHL team.  Completed in 1995, the newly renamed Key Arena was a palace for basketball with 17,000 seats and over 50 luxury boxes.  Unfortunately the remodel reduced the building’s seating capacity for hockey, leaving it with only around 10,000 unrestricted view seats.  MacFarland has stated that he believes this was part of Ackerley’s plan all along – prevent the city from getting an NHL team that would compete with the Supersonics and then remodel the Coliseum to ensure his team remained the building’s key tenant.  There is no word as to whether or not the new $220 million Key Arena remodel proposed to the legislature by the Sonics the Spring would expand seating for hockey, and the lack of a suitable facility will continue to prevent the NHL from considering Seattle in the future. 

Coincidences?  You be the judge…

Questions?  Comments?  Stories to share?  Memorabilia to sell?  Send me an email!


USAGE: If material from this website is quoted or otherwise used as a reference source in a published work in any format, please provide the proper citations/credit.  Thanks!



© Jeff Obermeyer 2000-2009