Seattle Cash, Creativity Flowing Elsewhere

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The first privately owned arena built in Canada since 1931 opened here last night for hockey.

It's a magnificent structure, the best Seattle money can buy.

It makes you wonder what if Barry Ackerley hadn't owned the Sonics. And Paul Allen and John McCaw had found opportunity at home instead of abroad.

In the decade of high tech and big bucks that has passed since Ackerley bought the Sonics from Sam Schulman, Seattle's new money and burgeoning creativity have gone elsewhere, the first manifestation being the $140 million General Motors Place, home of the Vancouver Canucks and the new Vancouver Grizzlies of the NBA.

Soon to follow is Allen's $200 million Rose Garden in Portland.

Seattle, meanwhile, is left to go to the legislature for a baseball stadium after the voters in King County said no thanks to an increased sales tax.

In a perfect world, the Vancouver model is the way it works, private money building the stadium and owning the teams, doing it right, without public assistance or intervention.

"The opportunity was here to have an integrated ownership in the teams and the arena," said Stan McCammon, vice chairman of Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Canucks, the Grizzlies, and the arena in which they play.

The investment is more than $300 million, 60 percent of which reportedly is owned by McCaw, the cellular-phone pioneer who also is a part-owner of the Mariners.

McCaw lives in the Seattle area; so does McCammon and Orca Bay president John Chapple. Starbucks coffee advertises alongside the rink. Canadians were suspicious at first of the Seattle design on their professional sports team, but looked no further than a new arena and a new NBA franchise, one dependent on the other, both free and clear.

Rather, the Canadians have designs on Seattle, hoping to regionalize the Canucks as Seattle wants to do here with the Mariners.

"We really believe Seattle is a market for the Canucks," said Jim McTaggart, a spokesman for Orca Bay. McTaggart also lives in the Seattle area.

"Since Seattle won't have an NHL team in the foreseeable future, we believe we can develop a significant number of Canuck fans there. There is also no question the NHL would like to expand to Portland."

The NHL might become big in the Northwest, but it won't include Seattle because the remodeled Coliseum has only 10,000 seats in a hockey configuration.

GM Place, located downtown next to B.C. Place and on the grounds of what was Expo 86, is an intimate, upright building, like the interior of the new KeyArena, except that it's bigger - 20,004 for basketball and 19,056 for hockey.

It also cost almost twice as much.

Seattle did what it could with the Coliseum and an unwillingness to use tax dollars. The result is that Seattle will be the regional hub for professional baseball and football, while Vancouver and probably Portland will be the hubs for hockey.

And all that makes sense to me. GM Place has sold all its 88 luxury suites for hockey and all but eight for basketball. Season-tickets sales for each sport hover around 13,000. The place was jammed last night for Canada's Thanksgiving Day hockey opener against the Detroit Red Wings.

The corporate support for hockey and the Grizzlies' inaugural season in the NBA is there. But Vancouver doesn't have the NFL or baseball, nor does it have anything resembling Seattle's fourth franchise, the Washington Huskies.

McCaw's involvement in Vancouver started as most things do in Seattle, with promoter Bob Walsh, who was hired by the Griffiths family, longtime owners of the Canucks, to try to interest the NBA in Vancouver.

Walsh did his job. Along the way he got McCaw interested. The McCaw and Griffiths families had a history. They both were in the communications business, and they both loved orcas.

"We were able to get involved in the creating of an NBA franchise as well as the building of an area," McCammon said. "It was exciting."

Orca Bay employs 170 people. It will bring Luciano Pavarotti here in December. It wrestled a tour event away from the PGA and will produce the Greater Vancouver Open next summer at Northview Country Club.

So far, building a great arena has been the easy part. The Grizzlies are faced with introducing a new sport to Canadians, a sport that didn't do well until marketing was switched to a grass-roots campaign.

And even though the Canucks were in the Stanley Cup two seasons ago, season-ticket sales had dropped below 8,000 after an increase in tickets prices and the NHL lockout.

New management cut ticket prices. The Canucks signed Alexander Mogilny to pair with Pavel Bure and have a whopping payroll of $23 million. They showed off the new arena, which has the kind of high-altitude seats hockey fans love, and tickets sales took off.

Vancouver hopes to be as much a sports destination for Seattle as Seattle is for Vancouver. At the end of the month, for example, the Canucks play Winnipeg on a Saturday evening and the Grizzlies play the Sonics in the final exhibition game for the two the next afternoon.

With the exchange rate, the cheapest NBA tickets here are $10.50, the NHL tickets $17.75.

It means sense and cents.