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More stops than starts in NHL-to-Seattle saga

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Wayne Gretzky was reportedly tied to a Seattle group, but his agent denies it. (USATSI)
Wayne Gretzky was reportedly tied to a Seattle investment group, but his agent denies it. (USATSI)

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It used to be the Arizona (nee Phoenix) Coyotes ownership saga that kept grabbing offseason (and in-season) headlines with all of its stops and starts and twists and turns. Now it's the NHL-to-Seattle storyline that is surely going to command attention, probably for years to come and in a much similar fashion.

While the Coyotes story was driven mainly by the glimmer of hope that the team would move to a Canadian market, for a time back to Winnipeg, then later to southern Ontario or Quebec City, the Seattle story is driven primarily by intrigue.

The latest fuel tossed on the Seattle fire came via a report from the New York Post that Wayne Gretzky had joined an investment group trying to bring the NHL to the Emerald City.

Whenever Gretzky is mentioned, and it seems to be that he has been mentioned an awful lot lately, it definitely raises eyebrows. Fifteen years after The Great One hung up his skates, he remains the most famous hockey player in the world. So when he's attached to anything, it carries a lot of weight.

Though Gretzky declined comment to the Post, Gretzky's agent, Darren Blake, denied that the NHL legend was involved in any Seattle group's bid to the Canadian Press.

"As you can imagine prospective team owners from various franchises call frequently to gauge his interest in coming on board. Seattle is no different," Blake told CP.

While there may be no direct involvement, there's at least been contact on one end. So that's something, but obviously not concrete.

That Gretzky is a target of many prospective ownership groups is hardly a surprise. Most recently, Gretzky was reportedly part of a group that attempted to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011. The group made a $1.5 billion bid for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment that also owns the NBA's Toronto Raptors. The bid was rejected by the NHL, however, as it did not comply with the league's rules for owning a team.

Should Gretzky ever get involved in the Seattle group, it would go a ways in legitimizing their campaign and putting a very famous face on the NHL-to-Seattle process.

That said, there are still so many snags in Seattle's hopes for an NHL team, not the least of which is the need for the city to attain an NBA team once again.

Hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, who has been spearheading arena efforts in Seattle, has said he will not build the arena he has pledged to the city until they have an NBA team ready to inhabit it. That arena would then be designed in such a way that it could also be home to an NHL squad to bring pro hockey back to Seattle, which was home to the first American-based winner of the Stanley Cup, the Seattle Metropolitans.

Hansen's group is also now short one major investor in Steve Ballmer, who dropped out from the Seattle group after he made a $2 billion bid to purchase the Los Angeles Clippers. That process is now tied up in legal proceedings, but Ballmer, a former Microsoft exec, being out on Seattle hurts.

Even though Ballmer is out, Hansen remains steadfast in his quest to bring the NBA back to Seattle. He issued a statement soon after Ballmer's bid for the Clippers became public:

I would also like to assure Seattle fans that my remaining partners and I remain committed to bringing the NBA back to Seattle. The environmental review process for the Seattle Arena is nearing completion and we will soon be in a strong position to attract a franchise back to the Emerald City.

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave his annual pre-Stanley Cup Final address to give a status update on the league, he also addressed the possibilities of expansion in a general sense. At least at this point, there's not much to report.

“We're not planning on expanding,” he said. “We're not in an expansion mode or formal expansion process. We listen when people say, ‘We'd like to come visit you and tell you why we're interested and where we're interested.'”

Though there's always the possibility of relocation as well, Bettman made sure to specifically address Seattle.

“Seattle, which seems to have the most number of people interested, the fact is there's no building that's on the horizon,” Bettman said. “The person who controls the rights to build a building in Seattle is intent upon having an NBA team before he builds a building. Based on what's happened to date and the fact that his partner has now bought a different franchise, I don't know that there's any prospect of a building in Seattle.”

Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly did visit Seattle to get a status update in May, but the commissioner maintained it was nothing formal, stating they were just “in the neighborhood.”

So while the Gretzky report may have briefly breathed some life into the Seattle situation, it still doesn't seem like there is anything remotely close to happening on the Seattle front. It just goes to show you that Gretzky's name still has a lot of cache and when he's involved, people get excited.

When you talk to some of those in and around hockey, at least outside of the league office, there is a general sense that the NHL will indeed one day make it to Seattle. Just as it very well could make it back to Quebec City. It just may be several years down the line when the NHL may have the motivation to expand to 32 teams. That still feels a way off in the distance, but not an outright impossibility.

Unfortunately for Seattle, there will be many more stops and starts to this process on both the NBA and NHL fronts, and could be for years to come even if it seems like one day both leagues will make a home in the Emerald City.

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