It’s not in Seattle’s interest to delay the NHL beyond 2020, so let’s give league no reason to

Geoff Baker

The Seattle Times

An official announcement Monday that the NHL Seattle group will build its practice facility and headquarters at Northgate Mall is another important step toward a franchise launch by October 2020.

But it’s not necessarily critical.

No, the new team can always practice temporarily at the revamped KeyArena until the Northgate venue is ready. What it can’t do is play home games during the 2020-21 season without that $700 million KeyArena overhaul finishing within its projected two-year time frame.

So, practice facility aside, the critical task ahead for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council members supporting this venture remains ensuring the KeyArena remodel doesn’t bump up against any remaining bureaucratic “process” known to delay many a local construction project.

The drama over securing an NHL expansion team might have ended last week in New York when the league’s powerful executive committee voted 9-0 to tell the rest of the board of governors to approve us a squad by December. But the team’s launch date remains in flux because of KeyArena.

“There may be variables and trigger points where we decide that either we’re going to make it or we’re not,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the executive committee’s decision. “And part of that will be how the construction is proceeding.”

Bettman added: “Once that’s all accomplished in the time frame for all that, we’ll have a better sense. But everybody’s goal is 2020 if it can be accomplished. If it’s not, then we’ll do it in 2021.”

No one can fault Bettman for exercising due diligence. But while his league might have no problem launching in 2021 instead of 2020, local taxpayers and hockey fans have a vested interest in the earlier date.

After all, the city can fill its coffers with more shared KeyArena revenue sooner by launching hockey in 2020.

It has also been seven months since NHL Seattle collected more than $20 million off 33,000 season-ticket deposits. Holding that money for 3 1/2 years before deposit-makers actually get to a game stretches the bounds of good taste.

So, it’s best to lop a year off the wait.

Durkan’s office issued a statement last week that “pre-construction” on permitting and other bureaucratic portions of the KeyArena renovation can proceed ahead of December’s granting of the team. Cutting red tape now instead of after the franchise is awarded helps. And if things can be further expedited, the city’s politicians are obligated to the taxpayers that elected them to do just that.

The reason being, as much as Bettman made it sound like any delay until 2021 would be construction-related, other factors are at play.

Bettman laughed off suggestions a potential work stoppage over the league’s collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) might impede the Seattle team’s start date. The CBA runs through the 2021-22 season, but players and owners can serve notice 11 months from now they plan early termination of the agreement and commence a lockout or strike by September 15, 2020.

“Nobody understands why there’s so much attention being placed on collective bargaining when the earliest we can be in bargaining is two years (from now),” Bettman said of team owners. “I think people are a little mystified as to why there’s so much commentary on this subject.”

OK, let’s demystify it.

The concern is the NHL would spend the entire year leading up to Seattle’s October 2020 launch trying to prevent a labor stoppage from sabotaging it. Look, I’d be the first to argue the league is doing the right thing approving Seattle now and worrying about the CBA later.

But claiming owners can’t foresee labor problems disrupting a 2020 Seattle launch defies credulity.

Of course, owners could always work harder at resolving player demands before any work stoppage. But it’s easier for those owners to delay the Seattle launch by a year to October 2021 — removing immediate leverage for players to hold over them — and bargain a better outcome for themselves.

Not that the NHL would ever use the pending work stoppage excuse in delaying Seattle’s launch. No, that’s awful PR. Instead, it would likely wait well into next year — gauging whether players would serve notice by September to terminate the CBA in 2020 — and then find a different reason to delay Seattle, be it construction or something else.

“Obviously, it would be unfortunate in the extreme if we decide to go at one time and the building wasn’t ready,” Bettman said. “And by the same token, we need to make sure that the existing clubs have an ample opportunity to make sure that they are planned appropriately for the expansion draft.”

Wait a minute. Expansion draft?

NHL owners have known since last year a Seattle expansion draft in 2020 was likely. They got to set a record $650 million expansion price tag in exchange for granting Seattle the same favorable draft rules the Vegas Golden Knights enjoyed last year.

Owners know these newer draft rules ensure expansion teams paying record sums won’t embarrass themselves like the 1974-75 Washington Capitals or 1992-93 Ottawa Senators.

So, what’s all this about owners needing more time to prepare?

If anything, this is another reason local fans should root for an October 2020 start, since any delay buys teams time to creatively thwart Seattle from drafting the best possible players. The expansion draft is a lame excuse for delaying the franchise’s launch and one the NHL probably isn’t eager to use.

But if league owners have no real intention of heading off a 2020 work stoppage, they might seek any excuse possible to delay Seattle’s franchise opening.

So, let’s not hand them the perfect one.

Look, we can’t tell the NHL to work harder at resolving labor issues, or force owners to abide by the spirit of expansion-draft rules. What is within our power, as a city partnering with private developers, is getting KeyArena built on time.

That way, we avoid making it easy on NHL owners. Avoid giving them a perfectly logical excuse to advance their own needs at the expense of our city’s best interests.