The Seattle Hockey Partners currently have three letters they need to be concerned with — and I’m not referring to the abbreviation of the National Hockey League.
EIS. Environmental Impact Statement. That’s the study about all the potential “effects” of the construction work to rebuild KeyArena.
It’s expected that the city of Seattle will release the final EIS on August 30th. At any point in the following 14 days, someone can appeal the EIS — leading to a delay of at least two months for the KeyArena construction process.
Such an appeal would lead us down a slippery slope that could trigger a longer wait for sports fans in Washington state to see their newest team in person. Those are known as Oak View Group & NHL Seattle’s “Plan B” and “Plan C”.
OVG and the Seattle Hockey Partners have those KeyArena contingencies because they know the overarching timeline to rebuild the arena is going to be a mad dash from start to finish. All that’s missing is the Benny Hill music.
But exactly how tight of a timeline are we talking about? Is there a historical precedent of something similar getting done before? And how does it compare to the building processes of NHL arenas in every other market?
Establishing a Baseline
I went back and gathered the construction data of every single NHL arena that will be used in the 2018-19 season.
First, a brief methodology.
There are 32 arenas in this dataset (before including KeyArena). That’s because of the New York Islanders’ less-than-ideal situation of splitting their games between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum out on Long Island.
The number of “total work days” I’m referring to are the number of days from each arena’s groundbreaking, up to and including the day it opened. Why include the day it opened? In at least one case (that I know of): workers were still literally installing seats inside the arena when the doors were opened to the public for the first time.
I used groundbreaking instead of the first official date of construction because the official dates of the former are readily available, while the latter is not.
With that out of the way, here are some of the findings.
A couple of things jump out when looking at the construction data.
- Getting an NHL arena built in less than two years is doable
- Even building an arena in 20 months or less is possible
- On the flip side: these projects can sometimes take more than three years
- Some of the shortest project durations happened in cities that are not exactly known for picturesque weather year-round
Obviously, there are some outliers in our sample. Three arenas needed more than three years of work before opening (Madison Square Garden, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, SAP Center). However, two of the three were started in the 1960’s, and one of them was built on top of a train station (MSG).
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the three arenas that were built in less than 1 year, 9 months (Bell MTS Place, Canadian Tire Centre, Gila River Arena) — including one project that took just more than a year and a half (bravo, Ottawa).
While those six projects are considered outliers, they’re not so far out there that they truly throw off the overall dataset.
The average number of days it took construction crews to complete an NHL arena is 835.38 (about 2 years, 3 months and roughly 14 days depending on where the calendar falls). If you remove those six “outliers,” that average time only drops to 825.88 days
For those of you who are statistically inclined: the median length of these projects is 819.5 days with and without our “outliers.”
Much more relevant to those in Seattle is the number of arenas which were built in less than 2 years. Basically one-third (11/32) of current arenas needed less than 24 months of work.
This is good news, particularly when you look at some of the locales where these shorter projects happened: Buffalo, Denver, Ottawa, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toronto & Winnipeg. As I said: they’re not exactly places known for having sunshine and warm temperatures free of snow, sleet, etc.
They’re all cases that prove you can complete a massive project in a very little amount of time (heck: arenas got built faster in Ottawa and Winnipeg than in Arizona and Florida).
But “less than two years” is such a broad timeline. Specifically: just how bold is the plan in the Evergreen state?Embed from Getty Images
Stacking Up With Seattle
No two cities or arenas are exactly alike. Each place and project have their own various sets of challenges.
For Seattle, it’s been an adventure just getting to the point where breaking ground on an arena is within reach. Yet the wild ride could throw a few more twists into the process.
This is where those three letters I mentioned earlier come into play: EIS.
If everything goes smoothly, OVG and the Seattle Hockey Partners will be cleared to push dirt at KeyArena in October. While quite a few things need to happen before breaking ground, we can already start to piece together a few rough construction timelines. We can then use those in comparison to the above data from other arenas to see just how “out there” the KeyArena goal is.
Let’s Talk Timelines
The earliest OVG and its contractors could ceremonially push their shovels into the Seattle Center soil is October 6th — the day after the final event at KeyArena (an NBA preseason game).
Oak View Group, its contractors and the Seattle Hockey Partners obviously have not announced a groundbreaking date due to the aforementioned hurdles they still need to clear first.
But it’s safe to assume that they would prefer to be shoveling soil on, or darn close to, October 6th. Simply put: the earlier they can start, the more time they give themselves to get the arena done. So, we’ll use October 6th as the “groundbreaking” date in our theoretical exercise. That’s the easy part.
What’s somewhat tricky is pinning down potential end dates.
As I mentioned: OVG has not released its specific dates for arena construction to start and end by. They’ve maintained that the goal is for everything to be ready for the 2020-21 season.
With construction not likely to start until October (or possibly November), realistically there are three rough deadlines to work from:
- Start of rookie camp/training camp
- Start of preseason
- Start of regular season
Obviously, there are several days in between each of these critical dates on a hockey team’s calendar and an arena could get finished between or before each of them. But they’re three key benchmarks leading to opening night, and each one needs a facility for a Seattle hockey franchise to use.
Let’s unpack them one at a time.
Rookie Camp & Training Camp
Young players who are hoping to break into the NHL for the first time report to their organization several days before the veteran players. These youngsters then spend several days at “rookie camp.” Here they will get more focused attention from the parent club’s coaching & player development staff, while the organization gets to see the early returns on each player’s offseason training regimen.
Rookie camp typically starts in the first 7-10 days of September, with main camp starting a few days after that.
Having KeyArena ready in time for training camp would be nice, but getting the team’s practice & training facility ready for it is far more crucial. An organization needs a space to perform medicals and fitness testing on all players (rookies and vets) before camp begins, and then they need ice space for coaches to put those players through drills.
Quick note on the practice & training facility: I’ve heard that NHL Seattle hopes to make an official announcement on the location of that facility somewhat soon. They’ve zeroed in on one location, but do not have it locked in as the official site as of the writing of this sentence on August 20th.
With that being said: if OVG and NHL Seattle wanted the arena ready in time for camp, then let’s use the rough date of September 1st as the deadline for timeline number one.
Start of Preseason
After a few days of practices and prospect games, the vets roll in and roster battles kick into high gear. They’ll play out every day in practice and in preseason games, while the NHL team whittles down the crowd to its 23-man roster.
Each franchise will play about 6-8 preseason games split between their home arena and road games (unless they’re part of some international showcase, like the Boston Bruins & Calgary Flames are in China at the start of 2018-19).
In an ideal world both NHL Seattle and OVG would like to have KeyArena open and ready to host those games so they can start making money in the process. The sooner KeyArena 2.0 starts hosting events, the sooner OVG & the Seattle Hockey Partners can start seeing return on their investment.
Preseason normally starts on or around September 15th, so we’ll use the 15th as our deadline in theoretical timeline number two.
Start of Regular Season
This is the far less optimal option. Like I mentioned above: NHL Seattle would prefer to be hosting preseason games at KeyArena to start making money off their multi-million-dollar investment.
But a couple of things can happen that would push us into a scenario where this is the official deadline (construction delays, or a snag in either EIS or NHL approval).
We’re still obviously years away from the first puck drop of the 2020-21 season, but we can roughly project when it will start.
OVG and its contractors need to know where they stand, and exactly when the arena will actually be finished, by late June of 2020 at the latest. The reason why? The NHL typically releases its preseason & regular season schedules in the days leading up to the amateur draft (which, in 2020, would also be the lead-up to the Seattle expansion draft).
The NHL has not announced the start dates for any seasons beyond 2018-19, but history tells us it will be within the first nine days of October.
Looking back at the last 30 non-lockout NHL seasons (including the 2018-19 campaign), the most common date for the start of the hockey season is October 4th (six times). The second-most common date? A tie between October 1st & October 6th (four times each). 2007-08 and 2016-17 are the only cases where the season did not start in those first nine days.
Past results are not always an indicator of future performance, but thanks to that prior information we can make a pretty educated guess about when a season will begin in the near future.
Side note: With the above start date history in mind, it will be interesting to see if the NHL chooses a day closer to October 9th for the 2020-21 season. Are they just trying to buy OVG & Co. a couple of extra days? Or is it just that date’s turn in the cycle? That’s not based on anything beyond my own curiosity, but it’s something to keep in mind for the months to come.
In terms of the deadline in our third theoretical timeline, we’ll use October 1. The league has started seasons on that date enough times that we have to treat it as a real possibility. If the 2020-21 year begins a couple of days later, then it’s “free extra work time” to finish the Key.
So, to recap, here are our three theoretical timelines & deadlines:
- Oct. 6, 2018 – Sept. 1, 2020 (Start of rookie camp/training camp)
- Oct. 6, 2018 – Sept. 15, 2020 (Start of preseason games)
- Oct. 6, 2018 – Oct. 1, 2020 (Start of regular season)
What follows is a table showing the total number of work days (including opening) for each timeline, what that number is in calendar form (years/months/days), and the number of current arenas built faster than each respective timeline.
All of the sudden, some of these rough timelines don’t look to be so scary.
Each of our experimental schedules would put a new KeyArena project in the top 33% (or better) of the fastest-built NHL arenas. It’s an impressive range, but not truly small enough that there is no real precedent of a similar project getting done in the same timeframe.
So how do these possible schedules stack up to other expansion teams? Here’s a look compared to new franchises from 1991 on.
If you’re wondering what the * stands for, it means that franchise did not play in its new arena from the start. They played part or all of their first season (or seasons) in a temporary home while their arena was finished. The R designation means that franchise came into existence through relocation (like Quebec becoming Colorado, for example).
What’s encouraging is our three Seattle schedules are all pretty much right in line with Vegas’ arena timeline. However: Vegas started building T-Mobile Arena before the NHL gave them the green light to run a season ticket deposit drive, and the arena was finished a few months before the league approved Vegas’ expansion application.
It’s also noteworthy that Vegas’ arena project was the shortest of any team which began an inaugural season playing in its new arena. Minnesota is the next-closest, but the Xcel Energy Center took four months longer than the project in Sin City.Embed from Getty Images
That’s potentially a big deal, considering every single arena completed faster than Vegas’ home was not ready for the debut of its hockey tenant.
The NHL used to be much more relaxed about expansion teams not having a new arena in place and ready for play before their debut seasons. That attitude changed starting with the four-way expansion which began in 1998.
The league conditionally approved the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets & the Wild at the same time in 1997. But the NHL staggered the debuts of each new franchise in part so the arenas for each team could be ready (only Nashville’s was already finished before expansion approval in 1997). Another factor in the staggered debuts is the NHL likely did not want to have four new teams in one expansion draft.
Minnesota is a particularly interesting comparison case for Seattle, since Tod Leiweke was the President of the Wild from day one and he helped oversee the construction of a new arena in St. Paul. The current NHL Seattle President & CEO also helped lead the charge in Vancouver to build the privately financed General Motors Place (Rogers Arena nowadays).Embed from Getty Images
Both the B.C. and Minnesota projects took more than 800 work days (801, 830 respectively). All three of our rough Seattle timelines are at least 74 days (2+ months) shorter than both the Canucks and Wild arena builds.
Tod’s brother Tim Leiweke was the President of the Los Angeles Kings when they built the Staples Center. That took 931 days.
At first glance the idea of tearing the guts out of an arena, rebuilding it from the inside while simultaneously expanding it, not touching a roof that was designated a landmark, and doing it all in less than two years seems a bit overambitious.
Yet as we’ve shown: building an arena in that timeline is not only doable, but it’s occurred with some type of regularity in recent history.
There’s room for optimism, but not much for error.
Tim & Tod Leiweke have to oversee the fastest building of a hockey arena either one has ever been a part of — and that’s just assuming OVG breaks ground on the first day possible. Things need to get accelerated even more if those potential delays we mentioned earlier become reality.
We don’t know the bare minimum number of work days OVG, its contractors and NHL Seattle believe they can get the arena built in. I hope we don’t ever have to find out, because if we do it’s a sign the already drawn out Seattle arena process hit even more snags.
All we can do now is watch, and wait to see what happens. The next turn in the tale of luring professional winter sports to Seattle starts August 30th.
If you have any questions or feedback: leave a comment, send me an email at the address on the bottom of the page or hit me up on Twitter (@ScottMalone91).
All Seattle Center Arena renderings courtesy of Populous & Oak View Group.