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Prospective NHL Seattle Owner Looking at KeyArena Remodel

The man who wants to bring NHL hockey to Seattle says it's time to look at alternatives to the SoDo project to make that happen, specifically a complete or partial redesign of KeyArena.

Edited by Tiffany Villigan

Ray Bartoszek, the investment banker who headed the group lined up last year as the Seattle "Plan B" for the Phoenix Coyotes before a sale and arena financial plan kept that team in Glendale, wants to bring the NHL to Seattle, and he's tired of waiting.

Following on his story Thursday about the NHL indefinitely abandoning the idea of Seattle expansion due to the hold-up in the arena process, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times reports that Bartoszek is ready to consider other arena alternatives. According to Baker, Bartoszek believed that the Chris Hansen/Steve Ballmer-led effort to get a new arena offered the quickest opportunity to land a relocated or expansion NHL franchise, while also offering the easiest way through a political climate that has often appeared hostile or less-than-fertile to such efforts. For his money, that no longer appears to be the case.

It was recently made clear that a renegotiated deal to allow for a hockey-first approach to the public financing model that was created by Hansen, the city, and the county in the basketball-fronted SoDo arena project was not a reality any party was willing to entertain. After the pending sale of the Milwaukee Bucks last week, the path to securing an NBA team for Seattle is murky, putting the arena project in a bit of limbo. That limbo could cost Seattle an NHL franchise that the league seems all but ready to grant, and Bartoszek wants to act to prevent that from happening.

"I think we’ve got to get away from this idea that the key to this is through that real estate," Bartoszek said of the Sodo project, still awaiting political approval in a stalled process. "I assumed those guys held the keys to the city and the ability to get this all done. Now, it’s time to look at other approaches."

One such approach that appears to be Bartoszek's frontrunner is a redesign of KeyArena. Listed at 15,177 seats for its ice show and hockey configurations, the Key is believed to generously offer between 9,000 to 10,000 seats with an unobstructed view of the off-center rink, in addition to 58 luxury suites. This has long been seen to be inadequate to properly support an NHL franchise. Though the league was willing last year to allow the Coyotes to play in the arena for two or three seasons if they relocated, Baker makes the point that this was because they were in "emergency mode" and needed a solution. Without that urgency, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated Thursday that the Key, at present, does not offer a long-term venue.

"We know, in its current form, it isn’t an ideal or close to an ideal hockey facility."

Bartoszek is currently researching costs behind a revamp of KeyArena, and no time frame is given in Baker's article. A tear-down of the Key and a replacement at the site is one of the alternatives being analysed in the environmental impact and economic assessment for the SoDo project.

Premature, to be fair, but it is uncertain just who would potentially be offering the funding towards this concept, especially if negotiations with the Hansen/Ballmer group revealed that Bartoszek's group was unable or simply unwilling to shoulder the bulk of the financial risk to an NHL-first approach to the SoDo project. Bartoszek has had preliminary talks this week with AEG Facilities, the arm of the Anschutz Entertainment Group that presently operates the Key for the city, and that might offer opportunity.

As for any public contribution, it would remain to be seen if the current reluctance toward funding for hockey is solely limited to the SoDo project. Also, the city would have to consider its existing relationship with Hansen's group.

There are clear challenges to any project willing to be done on the Seattle Center campus. In addition to the number of different voices that would be involved in the conversation of the use of public lands, consideration of the short- and long-term impacts to Center operations during demolition and construction is a must. Attention must also be paid to current KeyArena tenants, such as the WNBA's Seattle Storm, the Seattle University Redhawks basketball team, and the Rat City Rollergirls roller derby league.

The loss of a venue and important economic generator for the Center until a new facility opens would also cause concert tours and sporting events, such as the Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament, to have to look at other regional options outside of Seattle. Present infrastructure and parking concerns within the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood around the Center are also a big hurdle, only to be exacerbated by the residential construction going on in the adjacent Belltown, South Lake Union, and at-large Queen Anne neighborhoods.

It's always possible that this is a leverage maneuver on Bartoszek's part to re-engage the hockey conversation with the SoDo project. He's not opposed to working with the existing efforts, as long as they don't indefinitely impede his own pursuit. Like Hansen's and Ballmer's devout passion for basketball, Bartoszek wants to own an NHL team and wants to bring that team to a great market in Seattle. He doesn't want to let a building get in the way of that happening.

"I’m still as enthusiastic about the NHL and Seattle as I’ve ever been," Bartoszek said. "But at some point, you’ve got to get the thing done."

What are your thoughts on this approach? Does it help or hinder hockey efforts? If this project got traction, would it harm efforts to get the Sonics back? Would you support a KeyArena project? Let us know in the comments below.