SEATTLE -- Hockey optimism was palpable as a 34-member Seattle delegation of sports, business and political leaders returned Thursday from a 24-hour trade mission north of the border.
They'd boarded a leased Seahawks team bus Wednesday for a trip to Vancouver, where they were given a tour of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, were toasted at a reception by a counterpart group from that city and took in a National Hockey League game between the Canucks and St. Louis Blues.
But the true purpose of the trip -- organized by the Seattle Sports Commission and Tourism Vancouver -- was to forge sports business relationships. And throughout it all, talk of the NHL coming to Seattle was prevalent.
"We learned a lot about the sport and a little bit about the relationship between Seattle and Vancouver," said King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who, like a handful in the delegation, had never been to an NHL game. "I think it got a lot of people on this trip thinking seriously about whether they want to bring a hockey franchise to Seattle and also whether we want to invest in the necessary infrastructure, like an arena."
Arena talk seems certain to dominate much of the coming year if the NHL, as expected, issues a "letter of intent" to award a franchise in coming weeks to one of three potential Seattle ownership groups. Sources have identified the three main candidates as groups headed by New York investment banker Ray Bartoszek, Chicago businessman Don Levin and the Steve Ballmer-Chris Hansen partnership formed back in 2012.
The Ballmer-Hansen duo is the wild card, since they united two years ago to build a SoDo arena that would house an NBA franchise. All eyes are on whether Ballmer-Hansen would consider becoming hockey owners in an arena where basketball might not happen for years.
Having Ballmer as a willing team owner would be a game-changer, given his Forbes ranking last year as the world's 21st-richest man with a personal fortune estimated at $18 billion.
The Michigan native has the money to grab the NHL's full attention and outbid his main competitors if he doesn't mind becoming a hockey owner first, in hopes of later luring an additional NBA franchise to his group's new arena. If not, the option remains for Ballmer-Hansen to build the arena and serve as landlords to an NHL franchise owned by Bartoszek, who is said to favor the downtown location.
The other option could see Levin, owner of the AHL Chicago Wolves, go ahead with his stated preference to build an arena in Bellevue and have a new franchise play there. Sources have said the Bellevue option is not dead yet and much will depend on the political climate in months ahead.
Many expect the NHL to award a letter of intent no later than June, at which time the league and chosen ownership group would hold a news conference announcing they plan to bring hockey to Seattle.
If a deal to build a new arena can be finalized within six months or so, the franchise would be theirs and arena construction could begin. Sources say a team could begin play by the 2015-16 season, but would almost certainly have to spend two years at 11,000-seat Key Arena first.
Results of an environmental-impact study on the Ballmer-Hansen arena proposal for SoDo are due next month, and findings could dictate the future for that project and the level of any NHL involvement by their group.
"Politically, I think the will is there," councilmember Dunn said. "Obviously, we need to find a franchise and that's an important one. But the other important tangible is that the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. I've never seen the city as electric as it was. I think there might be an increased appetite for professional sports in Seattle."
A handful of the business and political participants in this week's Seattle delegation to Vancouver have had involvement in the ongoing talks to make an NHL franchise here a reality.
They heard encouraging words at Wednesday's pre-game reception by Canucks chief operating officer Victor deBonis, who marveled at the relationship between Seattle's "12th Man" football fans and the Seahawks.
King County councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said it was great seeing "12th Man" signs still hanging in Vancouver and proving that sports can have a regional impact far beyond a city's borders.
Others making the trip included Seattle Port commissioner John Creighton and representatives from the Mariners, the Boeing Classic, Seattle University and various construction, transportation, hotel, financial and legal firms.
"Our goal was to get the dialogue going with people in Vancouver, and I think we certainly accomplished that," said Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission. "As for what comes of it, we'll have to see. But this was an important first step."
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