Guyle Fielder was lying in an Arizona hospital bed this week when he heard the news Seattle had officially been granted an NHL expansion franchise for the fall of 2021. As possibly the greatest player to lace up a pair of skates in the city, he was ecstatic over the news.
“My immediate thought was: ‘It’s about time,' ” Fielder said from his Phoenix-area sickbay, where he was getting a pacemaker implanted. “They’ve been trying to make this happen for literally years. I never understood the holdup. Anyway, it’s a go now so I’m really happy for the city. It deserves an NHL team.”
The decision announced at an NHL board of governors meeting in Sea Island, Ga., on Tuesday wasn’t really news at all. It was a foregone conclusion. The only thing in question was when the NHL’s 32nd team would start up; its ownership group was pushing for 2020 but the league, in an abundance of caution, put it off a year to make sure a US$750-million renovation of the iconic Key Arena is finished before the start of the opening season. It was going to be touch and go for October, 2020, and the thought of the team starting the first month or even longer on the road was not appealing to the league. Eventually, even the club’s owners agreed a little extra time to prepare for the long-awaited launch of the NHL franchise wasn’t such a bad idea.
Many people, of course, know Seattle as a hip, vibrant city that has been among the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States for several years. Being the headquarters of such powerhouses as Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks has helped make it one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, too, with all the corporate prosperity that comes with it – riches that are essential to support several major professional sports teams.
The city is sure to become a popular destination on the travel schedule for every team in the league. One, in particular, is thrilled: the Vancouver Canucks. A team with the most brutal travel schedule of any in the league will soon have a regular opponent that’s just a 45-minute flight away.
“I mean, it’s fantastic for us in a number of respects,” says Francesco Aquilini, owner of the Canucks. “First, is the close proximity to a team that will be in our division. But the proximity will also be great for fans. It will get people in the Pacific Northwest really engaged in what I expect will become a great rivalry.
“I can see people travelling up and down the I-5 in both directions to see games. I think it’s going to be great for tourism in both cities. I mean, Seattle is a great, great sports town. They just never had a good arena for hockey. That was really the only thing holding it back from having an NHL team. Now they’ve solved that problem and it’s going to be absolutely fantastic for the league.”
There has been a hole in the winter sports scene in the city since the NBA SuperSonics left town, along with the team’s prized rookie recruit, Kevin Durant, for Oklahoma City. It was a punch to the gut from which Seattle has struggled to recover. The rehabilitation of Key Arena into a legitimate, big-time sports arena should also help get an NBA team back.
Some have wondered whether hockey is destined to be a success, once the lustre of having a new NHL franchise has worn off. But many of those same doubting Thomases are likely unaware of just how deep the game’s roots run in these parts.
The Metropolitans were a Seattle-based team that played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The team was founded by hockey icons Frank and Lester Patrick. (The Seattle bid group took a good-luck charm to the NHL meetings in Georgia this week: Beverley Parsons, now in her 80s, who is a niece of the Patricks). On March 26, 1917, the Metropolitans, with Hall of Famer Lester Patrick in the lineup along with four others who would also be bestowed with the game’s highest honour, defeated the National Hockey Association’s Montreal Canadiens three games to one to win the Stanley Cup. They were the first U.S.-based team to hoist the game’s cherished silver chalice.
The same two teams met again in Seattle for the Cup two years later. However, the series was cancelled after five games because of an influenza outbreak that killed a player on one of the teams. The Metropolitans disbanded in 1924.
The city was home to different minor-professional hockey teams over the next several decades, including squads that took the ice under the name Eskimos, Sea Hawks, Ironmen, Bombers and Americans. However, it was the Totems, playing from 1958-59 to 1974-75 in the newly constituted Western Hockey League, who made many Seattleites into hockey fans.
It was on this team that Detroit Red Wings prospect Guyle Fielder starred as the team’s captain and playmaking centre.
“It was a wonderful time,” recalled Fielder, who was born in Idaho but raised in Nipawin, Sask. “We managed to collect a really good group of players for a number of years. We didn’t make a whole lot of money back then. Most of us had to take summer jobs. I worked with a few of the guys at the Rainier Brewery. But it was fun and the team was really well supported by the locals.”
Over the course of his WHL career, Fielder, known as Golden Guyle in the press, amassed amazing numbers, accolades and trophies. He was a six-time MVP and nine-time scoring champion. (His 2,037 points remains fourth on the professional hockey scoring list behind Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr). He also led the team to three championships. (There is already a group lobbying to have the new Seattle team retire Fielder’s No. 7 on opening night in 2021).
In the Totems’ final season, the roster included former NHL defenceman and long-time head coach, Pat Quinn. The Totems owner at the time, Vince Abbey, was actually awarded an NHL expansion franchise in 1974, to begin play two years later. But when he failed to come up with the required US$6-million expansion fee, the offer was rescinded.
There were other attempts to bring the NHL to the city, all of which failed. Hockey fans in the area soon had to be content with a junior-hockey version of the WHL, with the Everett Silvertips and the Seattle Thunderbirds playing in it.
However, a new bid to bring the greatest hockey league in the world to the city was mustered under a fresh ownership group that included Hollywood film and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Pirates of the Caribbean) and private equity CEO David Bonderman. It also included the Leiweke brothers, Tod and Tim, whose credentials in various professional sports leagues are virtually unparalleled. Tod was president of the Seattle Seahawks during their ascendancy in the early 2000s to their current powerhouse reputation and later moved on to senior roles with the Tampa Bay Lightning and NFL head office. And among his various past roles, Tim Leiweke was president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and the person often credited for increasing the visibility of MLSE’s soccer franchise, TFC.
Now the brothers have their name on another franchise.
“Seattle is an extremely influential city now, not just in the U.S., but globally,” said Tod Leiweke, relaxing in his office in Seattle. “That’s why I think it was so important for the National Hockey League to plant a flag here.
“The people are so excited. We had 32,000 season-ticket deposits before the announcement and we had thousands more deposits after it became official.”
Leiweke said that while there is loads of work to be done between now and opening night, he has allowed himself to think that far ahead, and imagine the moment.
“It gives me goosebumps because I think that night can be a night of the future but also a night to recognize that there really has been a rich hockey history here.”
Guyle Fielder can also imagine it.
“If I’m still around and kicking I’d love to go,” the 88-year-old said with a laugh. “It should be quite a night. Quite a fun evening. I’m going to work on making it until then.”