Hockey Night ... In Seattle? -- Nhl Moving Closer To Expansion In 1992-93

By the time the Thunderbirds return from their two-week road trip across the Canadian prairies, they may not be the only hockey team in Seattle.

There is no telling how fast events may move, but this week in Chicago, the National Hockey League will establish criteria for expansion. Seattle is mentioned along with San Jose and Milwaukee in the first wave of expansion for the 1992-93 season. Cities listed among the next wave include Atlanta, Tampa, Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego and Anaheim. And in Canada, they're talking about Hamilton, Ontario, and Ottawa.

It may be an exaggeration to suggest a Seattle bidder could lock up a franchise by March 1. Seattle's prospects depend on someone putting up a $50 million expansion fee and a 16,000-seat arena.

Three or four parties are rumored to be interested in bringing the NHL to the Pacific Northwest. Bill Yuill, owner of the T-birds, is

the only one to go public.

``We're interested,'' said Yuill, who once bid $45 million to buy the NHL's New Jersey Devils. ``But we'll couch our interest by saying we want to see what we get for our money. $50 million may be too much if the deal isn't right.''

Apparently SuperSonics ownner Barry Ackerley and David Sabey, who bid for the Mariners, are not interested.

Sabey spokeswoman Gretchen Hannah said her boss might be interested in five or 10 years. ``But right now, Mr. Sabey has so many things going on,'' she said. ``People do think of him because of his interest in promoting sports in Seattle, but he has no interest in an NHL franchise right now.''

Ackerley's situation is not as clear. Bob Whitsitt, who runs the Sonics for Ackerley, said the only interest from their side right now was the effort to promote building a new arena.

``We are not really in that loop right now,'' Whitsitt said. ``But we think we could get into that loop fairly quickly if we wanted to.

``What we are concentrating on is getting a building built. And if we do, it will satisfy all the NHL's criteria. But why would we start discussions about buying a hockey team when we are focussing on an arena?''

Whitsitt said he had heard the rumors of groups expressing interest in bringing an NHL franchise here.

``But it's one thing to talk about spending $50 million or more, and it's another thing entirely to write out a check for that much,'' Whitsiit said. ``It's a lot of money, especially for an expansion team in a market where there is something else going on.''

Ackerley said in December - when NHL governors voted to permit expansion to as many as seven sites during the 1990s - that he ``had not even thought about the NHL in years.'' Of course, he also said then that he had ``pretty much given up the idea of building a new arena.''

Last March, Ackerley was thinking of the NHL. When Pat Schroeder of Auburn kept writing of possible NHL expansion to Seattle in his hockey newsletter, the Blueline Bulletin, at least one Ackerley employee asked him to stop supporting a pending resolution by Rep. Roy A. Ferguson and Rep. Marilyn Rasmussen expressing support for NHL expansion to the Puget Sound area.

``Laurie Giesen, director of community relations for Ackerley Communications, contacted me in Chicago and asked me to do what I could to kill the pending measure,'' Schroeder said. ``But she would give me no reason. I refused.

``She then asked that I not mention Barry Ackerley in relation to NHL expansion. I complied with her request.''

Schroeder later testified at hearings before the state committee on Trade and Economic Development.

``The following week I was invited to meet with Ms. Giesen at her office in the Seafirst Building,'' he said. ``At that time she again asked that I try to kill the pending resolution (which had been endorsed by the committee and passed on to the legislature). I again declined.

``She then asked me to quit publishing the Blueline Bulletin. She implied that the publicity would hurt Seattle's chances for an NHL expansion award, but she would not be specific. When I refused to quit, she again asked me to stop writing about NHL expansion issues. I refused again and the meeting ended.''

Ackerley is out of town and did not return phone calls. However, Giesen's recollection of her conversations with Schroeder varied from that of Schroeder.

``I did talk to Pat but did not

T-birds owner Bill Yuill

seek to have him help us kill the bill,'' she said. ``I did ask him not to associate Barry Ackerley with NHL expansion and the reason for that is academic. Without a building, there could be no NHL expansion to Seattle.''

She added that she did not ask Schroeder to stop publication of his newsletter. ``I did mention that it was naive to think that articles like the one Pat wrote would do much to secure an NHL team for Seattle. But it would have been naive of me to ask him to stop publication.''

Meanwhile, the state legislature voted unanimously to support the resolution and Seattle continued to be prominent in NHL expansion stories, before and since league governors gave near unanimous (voting 20-1, only Toronto against) approval to expanding.

However, considering that the NBA charged $32 million to four new franchises two years ago and an existing NHL club, the Quebec Nordiques, sold for $15 million at the same time, the $50 million fee to join the club seemed high.

``It seemed very high,'' Yuill said. ``But it depends on what you get for your money. If they include you in the TV revenue and give you reasonable draft picks, maybe it can work if you can negotiate a good deal in your building.''

High, maybe. But the $50 million figure is firm.

``They didn't just pull it out of thin air,'' said Brian Burke, president of the Vancouver Canucks. ``The Hartford Whalers sold for $36 million, only part of the ownership, too. Perhaps the $50 million is more realistic for bigger markets, but it's a solid figure.''

Howard Baldwin, who sold the Whalers' majority ownership in 1988 and now is pushing for an NHL team in San Jose, said, ``They're not forcing anyone to pay it. We're all big boys and the price doesn't scare me.''

According to an official of an East Coast NHL team, the $50 million asking price was put out to see how many bidders would respond. ``They wanted to see how many were able and willing to come up with that much. If enough do, they may even bump it from there, the $50 million may be a minimum.''

Yuill said one NHL official mentioned the possibility of a $70 million entrance fee from three new teams. ``That comes to $210 million total,'' he said, ``a nice, round $10 million for each existing NHL team.''

NHL critics allege the league is money-hungry, and point to the three-year, $51 million television contract with SportsChannel America prior to the 1988-89 season. The NHL turned down ESPN's offer of $40 million and gave up much wider exposure on the bigger cable network.

In addition, the franchise fee may be to make the existing teams apparently worth more.

Yuill said his accountants had ``run the numbers a couple of times.'' He also said that ``some of the existing teams might have trouble existing under those conditions. You've got to be given a chance to turn a positive cash flow some time in the foreseeable future. As I said, we'll reserve the right to wait and see.''




History of NHL expansion



Montreal Canadiens

Toronto Maple Leafs

Detroit Red Wings

New York Rangers

Boston Bruins

Chicago Blackhawks



TEAMS: California Seals'(X), Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburg Penguins, St. Louis Blues.

FEE: $2 million

FORMULA: Original six teams protect 11 players and one goaltender. Once existing team loses a player, it adds one of its exposed players to its protected list. Expansion draft continues on an alternating claim-and-fill basis until new teams select 18 players and two goalies.



TEAMS: Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks

FEES: 46 million (paid in the currency of the applicant's country).

FORMULA: Existing teams protect 15 players and two goalies. Same alternating system of claim-and-fill applies. No team to lose more than three players and one goalie. First-year pros and unsigned amateur draft choices under 22 exempt.



TEAMS: Atlanta Flames'' (XX), New Yorks Islanders

FEE: Atlanta $5 million; Islanders $10 million ($4 million paid as compensation for expanding into their territory.

FORMULA: Same as 1970.



TEAMS: Kansas City Scouts (XXX), Washington Capitals

FEE: $6 million

FORMULA: Same as 1972 except expansion teams select 24 players instead of 20.



TEAMS: Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets

FEE: $6 million (paid in currency of the applicant's country)

FORMULA: Priority selection process introduced. Former WHA teams protect two players and two goaltenders from their existing rosters. Existing teams then protect 15 players and two goalies. No team to lose more than three players and one goalie, including players lost to priority selections by ex-WHA clubs. First-year pros, unsigned 1978 draft choices and unsigned draft choices in college all exempt from expansion draft.



MOST LIKELY: Seattle, San Jose, Milwaukee

LEAST LIKELY: Anaheim, San Diego, Dallas, Hamilton, Ottawa, Atlanta, Tampa

FEE: $30-$50 million


(X) Became known as Oakland Seals in 1969 and California Golden Seals in 1970. Moved to become Cleveland Barons in 1977 and in 1978 merged with Minnesota.

(XX) Moved to Calgary in 1980

(XXX) Moved to Colorado in 1976 and then to New Jersey in 1982.


Knight-Ridder Tribune News / ROGER WATANABE