Key Arena

What’s the most convenient aspect of the 13th largest media market in America only having two major professional sports teams? The other two leagues get to use it as the ultimate negotiating tool in order to have their way with their current member cities. Recently, the NBA dangled the threat of relocation to Seattle in order to extract a sweetheart deal out of Sacramento to keep the Kings from moving north. Roughly one month later, it’s the NHL’s turn.

Last week, reports surfaced of a recent conversation between McGinn and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, which coincided with meetings between two potential NHL investors — Ray Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza — and members of the Seattle city council. None of this should come as any surprise, because the league has done this before, when push came to shove in Edmonton for a new arena last fall. But first, some background:

The Phoenix Coyotes have been league-owned since 2009, and have been operating as a charity case under the city of Glendale (the city provides an annual $15 million subsidy for the team to operate Arena). After the latest lockout, the league is looking for a more favorable situation, and even has an NHL-approved ownership group, Renaissance Sports and Entertainment, lined up to purchase the team. However, the bright red flag waving in front of the Glendale city council is the fact RSE is a Canadian group, they’re relying on borrowed money, and are seeking a lease opt-out after five years.

In the Edmonton situation, Oilers owner Daryl Katz actually made a symbolic appearance in Seattle last fall, “researching” sites for an NHL team (translation: he participated in a photo op at Key Arena). The league was never serious about moving the Oilers, but the illusion worked, as Edmonton is going to be the recipient of a state-of-the-art facility, set to open in 2016.

The showdown in Glendale resembles more of a New Orleans Hornets Pelicans situation than anything else, as the NHL owns the Coyotes. But that means Bettman and the owners are calling the shots, which is probably just as undesirable as if they were run by a lone misfit owner. Ultimately, a relocation to Seattle (the NHL’s “Plan B”, as has been reported by people in the know) is an empty threat, at best. And for one reason: Key Arena sucks.

Key Arena was a fantastic place to watch an NBA game (and still is, even if the league doesn’t think so), but it’s a mess for hockey. When it was remodeled in 1994-95, then SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerly gave the Seattle Thunderbirds a middle finger, making it about as inconvenient a place for hockey as possible. How bad is it? For the moment, let’s ignore the fact Key Arena only holds 11,000 people for hockey (or 13,000, depending on your definition of the word “optimal”), the fact the scoreboard doesn’t hang over center ice, and the horrendous sight lines: the ice doesn’t even stay frozen.

I’ll say it again (in a new paragraph, for emphasis): the ice doesn’t stay frozen. Because part of the surface runs under an arena overhang, the ice actually melts during games, turning one end into a slushy mess. Based on all those factors, it’s not a matter of Key Arena being merely a temporary solution — it’s a matter of it being laughable as any solution. The T-Birds even bailed on it five years ago.

It’s hard to imagine the NHL actually signing off on at least two seasons in Key Arena, but it is Gary Bettman we’re talking about here, so anything is possible, I suppose. Still, nobody should take any of the NHL’s threats seriously until an arena suitable for hockey is actually built — which will be when Chris Hansen puts a shovel in the ground to house an NBA team.