From Mathew Barzal to expansion talk, Seattle was Hockeytown in past week

Geoff Baker

The Seattle Times

Seattle hockey was front and center in Las Vegas last week at both the NHL annual awards show and the board of governors meeting that preceded it.

The awards part was historic for our region as former Seattle Thunderbirds junior star Mathew Barzal, to no one’s surprise, won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie. The New York Islanders center from Coquitlam, B.C., amassed 22 goals and 63 assists last season in becoming the first player from a Seattle-area junior team to capture one of the league’s premier awards.

And the pre-awards press briefing by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was interesting for Seattle as well as he hinted at an “aggressive” timeline for renovating KeyArena being a potential stumbling block to an expansion team beginning play by the 2020-21 season.

“The timetable on finishing the application and doing what we need to do, we can do that as quickly or as slowly as appropriate,” Bettman told reporters. “That’s a matter of weeks and months, not years. The bigger issue is going to be their timeline on the building.”

Bettman didn’t touch on our report last week about two apartment complexes challenging the legality of an environmental review on the planned $600 million renovation of KeyArena, but you can bet plenty of eyes will be on that as September approaches.

The awards ceremony, especially the rookie category, was substantially less in-doubt given Barzal’s dominant on-ice performance.

Just more than a year ago, Barzal, 21, had helped lead the Kent-based Thunderbirds to their first Western Hockey League championship. But few foresaw Barzal putting together the best early NHL showing by a T-birds alum since Patrick Marleau with the San Jose Sharks two decades ago.

“He just went there and played his game and didn’t compromise a thing,” longtime T-birds general manager and current senior advisor Russ Farwell said of Barzal. “The way he held the puck and pivoted and turned and carried it through the neutral zone. He really went there and asserted himself.”

Farwell doesn’t view Barzal’s award as a milestone moment for major junior hockey in this state. After all, he added, the Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips have had many quality NHL players graduate their ranks.

Instead, he sees it as Barzal focusing on putting his best foot — — or skate — — forward after being sent back to juniors by the Islanders early in the 2016-17 season. That demotion enabled Barzal to work on his game and lead the Thunderbirds to the WHL title after they’d been beaten in the finals the prior year.

“He’s probably a little more dynamic than Marleau was but he (Marleau) was in the league at 18,” Farwell said. “So we didn’t really see much of him and the player he could be.”

Marleau was the youngest player in his 1997 draft class and had 32 points his rookie season, which began right after his 18th birthday. He had 85 points combined his next two years through his age 20 season, which Barzal just completed.

The only other T-birds grad to win a major award was goaltender Chris Osgood capturing two William M. Jennings Trophies with the Detroit Red Wings in the mid-1990s for his team having allowed the fewest goals. But the Jennings Trophy is a statistical prize and not voted on the way other major awards are.

As for whether our city will soon have hockey beyond the junior level, we won’t know for several months. Tod Leiweke, president and CEO of the NHL Seattle group seeking an expansion team, told me he isn’t reading ulterior motives into the challenge of the KeyArena environmental review by owners of the Expo and Astro apartment complexes adjacent the facility.

The owners will meet shortly with representatives of the Oak View Group — — which is undertaking the renovation — to try to mitigate concerns expressed in a 17-page legal letter they filed during a public comment period. While a handful of other groups also used law firms to file public comments, the joint submission by the corporate owners of the apartment complexes was the only one that questioned the legal validity of the entire process.

It states that the environmental impact statement (EIS) being prepared should have been done as a public endeavor instead of a private one. A public EIS would have required the study of an alternative arena site — — like the Sodo District location entrepreneur Chris Hansen says he still wants to build a new arena at.

Hansen already made that same public-versus-private argument through his land use lawyer, Jack McCullough, during the EIS scoping period last October. That a colleague from the lawyer’s McCullough Hill Leary firm — — Courtney Kaylor — wrote the apartment owners’ letter has fueled speculation Hansen might be behind the effort.

Hansen’s group and one of the apartment owners, SRC Development, have denied involvement with one another. But the letter by Kaylor delves into several broader issues — — like the city’s plans for an NBA team, the fate of Seattle Center music festivals and the relocation of other nonprofit groups — that have little to do with the two apartment complexes.

The concern for anyone wanting an NHL team here by October 2020 is that the broad scope of Kaylor’s letter sets the stage for an appeal of the EIS once a final version emerges in late August or early September.

And any appeal, according to city officials, would push the renovation timeline back several months. That would almost certainly delay the NHL’s arrival by at least a season, if not longer.

NHL commissioner Bettman may not believe a KeyArena appeal is coming. But given the league’s previous exasperation at our city’s arena process, Bettman can hardly be blamed for eyeing that renovation timeline a little more warily ahead of any expansion team being granted.