SEATTLE — John Barr understood it was likely a foregone conclusion and yet as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke nearly 3,000 miles away, he found himself getting emotional watching the televisions in the packed bar.
Barr was among fans watching Tuesday morning as Seattle was awarded an NHL expansion franchise following a unanimous vote by the Board of Governors in Sea Island, Georgia, ending a lengthy dance between the league and the city that will finally see professional hockey return to the city. Seattle was the first U.S. city to win the Stanley Cup back in 1917. More than 100 years later, they’ll have that chance again.
“I was always optimistic but I didn’t think it was ever a guarantee. Might have got a little watery eyed there,” said Barr, who has headed up the NHLtoSeattle.com website and been a voice for hockey fans in Seattle. “It’s been a long haul and there’s been some ups and downs but I think the wait is worth it.”
The Seattle ownership group organized the watch party as a central gathering spot to celebrate the announcement and hand out swag a short distance from the Seattle Center, where the yet-to-be named team will begin play in a reconstructed Seattle Center Arena in 2021.
“Is there a better hockey morning than this morning in Seattle?” said Mayor Jenny Durkan, who took a little of the suspense out of Bettman’s announcement by revealing the outcome of the vote about 10 minutes early. “This is just a great thing for Seattle and I’m so honoured to be part of it.”
Dave Tippett, an adviser for the ownership group who had a front row seat for all the behind the scenes work that went into the pitch to the NHL, joined the fans in Seattle while his bosses were in Georgia.
“It’s been coming a long time. The turning point for me, and this was before I was involved, was watching the season tickets go on sale and in 10 minutes sold 12,000 tickets,” Tippett said. “We knew there was an unbelievable following here so it’s been fun to get to know people here and get to experience some of the excitement of bringing a team here.”
For now, the NHL will serve to satisfy Seattle’s winter sports itch that’s existed since the SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008. There’s also hope that the rebuilt arena and the foundation being laid by the NHL’s 32nd franchise will help bring the NBA back.
If there was a tinge of disappointment, it came with the decision that the team won’t start until the 2021-22 season.
The initial was hope for a 2020 start, but arena renovations may not be done in time. As it stands, team President Tod Leiweke said the hope is the building will open in the first quarter of 2021. The first team to call the facility home will likely be the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, before the NHL team begins in the fall.
“I’ve been at this eight years so it’s going to be another two years for 2020, another one for 2021, I can do it,” Barr said. “They have all the information. I think it’s the right call. We want to launch this right.”
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Tim Booth, The Associated Press