Contingencies at KeyArena: What Could Trigger “Plan B” and “Plan C” From OVG

We already know it will be a mad dash to complete the now $700 million renovations to KeyArena for it to be ready in time for the theoretical debut of a Seattle National Hockey League team in the fall of 2020.

The timeline of roughly one year, 11 months between the final event at the Key (an NBA preseason game) and a theoretical first preseason NHL game in the 2020-21 season leaves almost no room for error or delays.

While there are a lot of things to like about the announcement of the contractors who will be doing the physical construction work, there are two other very significant developments that emerged in the minutes after the recent news conference. Both were told to and noted by KOMO’s Patrick Quinn.

First: The Oak View Group admits it has not one, not two, not three — but five significant hurdles to clear by the end of the 2018 calendar year.

Second: OVG and NHL Seattle are willing to push hockey back one year to the fall of 2021 (the 2021-22 season) if need be.

That second development could easily cause panic and with good reason. But we should not be floored by it.

There are three major factors that could necessitate such a plan:

  • A lengthy appeal process on the environmental study
  • A delay in NHL approval
  • Another NHL lockout.

Let’s start with the short-term worry first.

The Environmental Impact Study

Tim Leiweke, who’s the CEO of OVG, said there are five — count ’em — five major tasks they need to accomplish by the end of 2018.

For those who don’t want to watch a 27-second video, I’ve transcribed it below this tweet.

Leiweke: “We must have a final, definitive agreement before the City Council in August. We must have an entitlement process before the city in September. We must have financing in place before we push dirt. We must have a team in place before we push dirt. We must have a guaranteed, maximum price in place before we push dirt. And so we have five huge hurdles we have to overcome between now and the end of the calendar year. We’re busy.”

The “agreement” is a lease deal. The hope is to have the City Council vote on that in August, which means the city would turn KeyArena over to Leiweke and Co. as soon as September.

The next (and larger) hurdle he and his partners face: the finalized Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). For those not familiar: it’s basically a study about the potential side effects from the proposed KeyArena renovation (noise, traffic impacts, etc.). The city is expected to publish that on August 30th.

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections told my colleague Mr. Quinn that the construction process could be delayed by at least two months if any group appeals the EIS. Should that happen, the maximum construction timeline shrinks from roughly 23 months (one year, 11 months) to 21 (one year, nine months).

It may not seem like much, but taking valuable days and weeks away from an already tight renovation process is obviously less than ideal — particularly if you plan on having everything ready by that fall of 2020.

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If anyone does want to appeal, then they have only the first 14 days after the release of the final EIS to do so — meaning we’d find out by mid-September at the latest.

As for how many concerns there are, the city told KOMO it received 41 comments on the draft EIS and that each one will be addressed in the final version. That’s the official count as of Tuesday, July 31st.

Both Tim and Tod Leiweke have made it clear that OVG and NHL Seattle are trying to meet with any people, businesses or groups to answer questions or calm any concerns they might have ahead of time. It makes sense. After all: the Leiwekes understandably don’t want to have this $700 million project start with delays instead of digging.

Should that EIS review (and the ensuing council vote expected in September) go off without a hitch, then we arrive at the second potential landmine that could throw off this delicate timeline.

“We must have a team in place before we push dirt.”

Tim Leiweke told KOMO they must be guaranteed a team from the NHL before they can break ground.

What will be important to watch is whether that guarantee means the formal approval, vote and blessing of the league & its owners — or more of a ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ from those power brokers.

While the next Board of Governors meeting has not been announced, it’s typically in mid-to-late September (sometimes early October). If a vote on Seattle expansion does not happen at that time, then we wait until their next meeting in December (or beyond). NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has insisted for months there is no timeline for the vote.

Obviously if NHL Seattle and OVG need to wait for that formal vote & approval before breaking ground, then we’d better hope it happens in that September/October meeting. If the vote doesn’t happen until December, then the window to get an arena done by September 2020 shrinks to about 21 months (one year, nine months).

On the flip side: if the brothers Leiweke only need the elbow nudge from the NHL to get started, then that obviously could happen as early as this coming September — meaning the 23 month renovation schedule could go as planned.

The difference in the two could impact the goal of getting the arena done in time for fall of 2020 — and trigger less desirable contingency plans as a result.

That brings us to “Plan B” and “Plan C.”

We already know “Plan A.” Everything goes smoothly, there are no EIS appeals, the city gives the green light and the NHL approves expanding to Seattle in September. After that, as Tim Leiweke put it, “then we’ll push dirt a little bit earlier.”

But Leiweke also mentioned to Mr. Quinn that they have a “Plan B” and “Plan C” in the event the next two months don’t go as hoped.

“Plan B”

Leiweke said “Our assumption is that if someone does appeal [the EIS], we need a Plan B. That Plan B is in place, and it still gets us to a point where we’ll play in 2020-21.” That was the extent of his comments on “Plan B.”

You’ll notice he did not mention any specifics, notably: How long of a delay could they withstand and still have the arena finished for play at some point that season? And if construction is delayed by at least two months (by an EIS appeal for instance), when would the renovation be finished by?

I believe “Plan B” would also apply in the event of the league scenario I outlined above: OVG needs that formal league approval of Seattle expansion to break ground, but the NHL Board of Governors punts the vote from September to December.

Personally: I can see the league deciding not to rush into a vote on Seattle expansion before the city clears the arena work, and all the paperwork checks out. Then again: almost each team and owner (sorry, Vegas) has roughly $21.667 million reasons from David Bonderman, Jerry Bruckheimer & co. to sign off on Seattle.

So what would this “Plan B” look like?

OVG, its new contractors and NHL Seattle likely have an internal date circled on the calendar for the last possible day they could break ground at KeyArena and still have the work finished in time for September 2020. We just don’t know what exactly that date is.

Any groundbreaking beyond that proverbial ‘line in the sand’ means we could be looking at a “renovation in stages” plan (similar to the work at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field), or else the ability to host preseason and potentially early regular season games is in jeopardy.

Preseason NHL games typically start on or around September 15th, while the regular season normally starts up in the first ten days of October.

The league might be willing to bend some scheduling rules for the preseason or a small handful of regular season games — but we don’t know that for sure, especially since it could have far-reaching impacts on 31 other franchises. Even if the league was going to do so, it would need to know before it releases the regular season schedules in late June, 2020 (typically in the days leading up to the NHL Entry Draft).

Depending on the length of the delay from an EIS appeal (or waiting for formal NHL approval to break ground) “Plan B” could range from playing the first few preseason games on the road, to the entire preseason — or the beginning of the regular season — away from Seattle Center while the renovations get finished. Yikes.

There’s also the other theoretical option of trying to play “home” games at a nearby rink until the new Key is ready.

I have a hard time imagining a Seattle NHL franchise would want to do that, considering those nearby WHL rinks in Everett and Kent have capacities of roughly 8,100 & 6,500 people for hockey games. It’s better than zero home games for weeks or months, but the Silvertips, Thunderbirds or their respective arena operators would understandably want a cut of any revenue from NHL games played there.

Of course all of this is speculation, since OVG and NHL Seattle are projecting confidence that it will all be OK and those potential months of delays will not be an issue.

Yet there’s a doomsday scenario that also needs to be mentioned.

“Plan C”

“Worst case scenario we have a Plan C where things can happen, unexpected situations may arise. If that’s the case, we play in 2021-22,” Tim Leiweke said to KOMO’s Patrick Quinn.

A few significant things would have to go wrong between now and the end of 2018 to reach this point of delaying professional hockey by an entire year. But it’s in the realm of possibility we, as well as the OVG & NHL Seattle leadership, need to be prepared for.

One path toward “Plan C” looks something like this:

  • Someone appeals the final EIS in September
  • The review of that appeal turns from ‘at least two months’ to three months or more — potentially stretching into 2019
  • The Seattle City Council does not vote on the arena until that appeal process is over
  • Because of the delay in the EIS and city approval, the NHL doesn’t vote on Seattle expansion in September or December — meaning the earliest they could do so is the next Board of Governors meeting around the All-Star Break in late January of 2019

Just like that, a 23 month renovation schedule gets trimmed down to 20 months or fewer.

Again: this is a worst-case scenario. It’s remotely possible — though at this point I would not call it “likely.”

Unfortunately there is another increasingly probable string of events that could trigger “Plan C.”

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Another NHL Lockout

That sound you hear is every hockey fan sighing, pausing and then slowly shaking their head while muttering some words that are not exactly family-friendly.

September of 2020 just so happens to be the next potential window for an NHL labor battle that would start days or weeks before a new Seattle hockey team should be playing its first ever game in a sparkling new KeyArena.

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed Sept. 16, 2012 and is supposed to run until Sept. 15, 2022.

*Cue Stephen A. Smith Voice*

However both the NHL and the NHL Players Association have the option to rip up the current labor deal effective Sept. 15, 2020. Both the league and the PA each have to decide whether they plan to do so by early fall of 2019.

Per the current CBA:

“Either party shall have the right to terminate this Agreement effective midnight September 15, 2020 (“early termination”) by providing notice as specified hereafter.

(i) The NHL may exercise its option for early termination by delivery of written notification to the NHLPA of its election to do so on or before September 1, 2019.

(ii) If the NHL has not already done so, the NHLPA may exercise its option for early termination by delivery of written notification to the NHL of its election to do so on or before September 15, 2019.”

So we could realistically be 10 or 11 months into the KeyArena renovations and find out either the league or the players want a new labor deal, which could lead to a lockout.

Sadly lockouts and hockey have gone hand-in-hand. They’ve had four in the past 26 years, including the infamous 2004-05 variety that cancelled an entire season. Three of those lockouts happened under the leadership of commissioner Bettman. He will be interesting to watch, because there are some people in the hockey world who wonder if Bettman will try to avoid another lockout to improve his image & legacy.

So Seattle sports fans could realistically be baptized into true NHL fandom before their team actually plays its first game by suffering through something hockey lovers of almost all ages have in common.

The reasons why more labor strife could happen are a lengthy story for another day (escrow, revenue sharing and Olympics just to name a few).

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The odds of another shortened or lost season range from “possible” to “inevitable” depending on who you read/talk/listen to. The Boston Bruins’ owner & chairman of the league’s Board of Governors recently said that he does not see a 2020-21 lockout coming. Jacobs is a powerful, influential man in league circles. His words carry some weight to them.

Yet the future looks a little more ominous when looking at player contracts.

I’m far from the first to point this out, but an increasing number of players have large chunks of — if not almost their entire — pay in the 2020-21 season in the form of a signing bonus. That’s a key detail because signing bonuses must be paid on each July 1st even if games or an NHL season are cancelled due to lockout.

The fact that players, their agents and teams’ General Managers are agreeing to contracts with that specific language is not a coincidence. It’s also not by mere chance that, according to Larry Brooks of The New York Post, commissioner Bettman told team owners and executives to stop giving out player contracts that include large signing bonuses for the 2020-21 season.

Spoiler: it’s still happening.

What’s that adage about judging words and actions, again?

Anyway, those two moves can be seen as the players and league respectively trying to prepare and protect themselves in the event of a few months where ice rinks stay empty in 31 (possibly 32) North American arenas.

The players want the security of knowing they’ll at least have some income in the event of a lockout. The league (and some owners) want to stop that, since the lure of getting paychecks after a few weeks or months without them can likely bring players to the bargaining table.

Unfortunately the latter range (months) is the more likely time frame. We’ve seen with the past three lockouts that these disagreements don’t typically end quickly. Two of those three cut down the normally 82-game season to 48 contests, and the third lockout wiped out an entire season.

At this point you’ve probably had that ‘Oh No’ moment in your head.

I’m here to tell you not to worry too much just yet.

The fact that these actions and conversations about the looming lockout have been happening for a couple of years now means OVG and NHL Seattle likely have a plan in the event of a lockout.

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Remember: the brothers Leiweke both have a ton of experience overseeing hockey teams. So does Dave Tippett from an on-ice level. They’re organized. This is something they’ve likely talked about, researched and prepared for ‘just in case.’

Again: we won’t know for sure whether this will even be a problem or not until September of 2019 — but you should be prepared for the possibility.

If there is a bright side to a lockout: any delayed construction work could theoretically keep going. Hooray?

OK, So Where Are We Right Now?

Both Leiwekes have stressed that they’re confident we’ll be seeing professional hockey in Western Washington for the 2020-21 season.

So of all three of OVG’s plans, where do we currently sit?

Tim Leiweke told KOMO they feel somewhere between “Plan A” and “Plan B.”

I’d agree, based on where things stand at this moment. Things mostly look good, but there’s going to be a tad of uneasiness until the the end of that EIS appeal period and a positive vote from the Seattle City Council.

After that, the next decision is out of their hands. If everything goes according to plan, OVG and NHL Seattle can lay it all before the NHL and make the league’s decision even easier.

Personally I hope it all goes smoothly and without any issues. I want things to go off without a hitch so more people in this region can experience and be exposed to a game I love.

Then again: it’s Seattle and an arena. Anything is possible.

As always: If you have any questions or feedback, send me an email at the address on the bottom of the page or hit me up on Twitter (@ScottMalone91).

Also: Apologies on the long wait between posts. My computer died and took three finished posts with it to the grave. I and some tech support workers tried to repair it and retrieve them without success. So I’m in the middle of re-writing them from scratch. Thanks for your patience.

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