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Seattle arena deal sure to fuel speculation of NHL relocation

Seattle hopes to bring professional basketball back. (AP photo/Kevin P. Casey)

Kevin P. Casey/AP

Municipal officials in Seattle will announce a framework agreement on Thursday afternoon to build a new multi-use sports arena in the city, a development sure to fuel speculation of an NHL team eventually occupying it.

A San Francisco-based hedge fund manager - described in the Seattle press as a mystery man' - is expected to be on hand for the announcement a term sheet; which is expected to feature a sizable infusion of private capital.

The financier, Seattle native Chris Hansen, wants to bring an NBA team back to the Pacific Northwest, and explained his passion for the game in this interview.

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But if there's to be a hockey team - some local observers have suggested an NHL tenant would be essential to making a new arena plan financially sustainable - he made it clear has no ambitions of owning it.

Though the NHL is understood to favour Seattle as a market - league commissioner Gary Bettman spoke glowingly of the city at last month's all-star game - there are several short-term impediments to a swift relocation involving a team like the league-owned Phoenix Coyotes.

The main one is that the outdated Key Arena - vacated by the NBA's Seattle Supersonics in 2008 because of its small seating capacity and advancing age - isn't easily converted to NHL specifications, and to do so limits the number of seats to about 11,000.

Even then, it's not especially hockey-friendly - the major-junior Seattle Thunderbirds moved out of the arena in 2009 and now play in a 6,500-seat building nearby.

The best case scenario involves two or more years of major financial losses for any owner who would seek to move a team to the city before the new arena is complete, a prospect that could prove a tough sell.

Though the proposal to build a new arena in Seattle will nevertheless spur NHL hype - and perhaps cause some angst in Quebec City, whose $400-million arena plans are aimed at attracting a team - the short term play appears to involve the tug-of-war over the NBA's Sacramento Kings.

City officials in the California capital are facing an NBA-imposed Mar. 1 deadline to approve financing plans for a new arena in that city or face losing the team.

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The proposal to build an arena in Seattle is fraught with other obstacles; in 2006, the city enacted a legislative initiative stipulating that it must make a profit from any investment in a sports arena.

Television station King5 reported that the arena agreement will likely include "debt backed in some way by the City and County", that would later be repaid through admission surcharges and "arena generating revenue."

That could include things like taxes on hotels and parking and increased property tax rates around the proposed stadium site, a plot of land Hansen owns next to Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners in the city's SoDo district.

The Seattle Times suggested the project could face opposition from the Mariners and Seahawks, as well as port officials and local groups concerned with increased traffic in the area.

There have been longstanding rumours concerning Seattle as an eventual destination for an NHL club - it's the 12-th largest media market in the U.S., and the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks have reportedly lobbied in favour because of the potential for local rivalries.

Billionaire lMicrosoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owns the NBA's Portland Trailblazers, has often been mentioned as a possible NHL franchise owner, a new arena in Seattle will surely add grist to the rumour mill.

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But at this stage, there's more conjecture than fact.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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