He wasn’t at the podium during the press conference earlier this month, as the city officially announced the Oak View Group as the preferred partner for the redevelopment of KeyArena.
Nor is he one of the parties involved in the city’s efforts to rehab the facility.
But Francesco Aquilini was in the crowd for the June 7 event, and his presence was recognized during remarks by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
For hockey fans, his appearance raised eyebrows. Aquilini knows a thing or two about operating a professional hockey franchise.
He owns the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canadian businessman is friends with Oak View partner Irving Azoff, and said he wanted to show his support for the project.
He’s also one of 31 voices at the table at the NHL Board of Governors, the group that would vote to either add an expansion team to the league, or approve the move of a current franchise.
“[They’re] very similar cities,” Aquilini said of Vancouver and Seattle. “The demographics, the politics, the economic base, it’s very similar.”
The Canucks owner said there hasn’t been a ton of cross-border support for the team from the Seattle area, but the nature of the schedule — night games at home once or twice a week — are what make the location of KeyArena understandable from a sporting perspective.
“That’s why these arenas that are in the center of the city work,” he said, “because people will come and they’ll go for dinner, they’ll make an evening out of it, as opposed to driving three hours for a game, staying overnight, and coming back.”
He also has high hopes for the Seattle market, and the potential I-5 rivalry that would come with a second franchise in the Pacific Northwest.
“I think they’re going to really get involved, and then once they’re involved, they’re going to be hooked on hockey,” he said. “That’s what I think, and I’m pretty passionate about it.”
Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports’ hockey blog, Puck Daddy, said Seattle is an obvious fit demographically and geographically for the league.
“It’s got a young, enthusiastic consumer base that has shown it will support a myriad of sports,” he said.
The question is if the market is already too saturated to support another professional franchise.
“I think that’s the hesitation for folks that might have any trepidations about Seattle, is how much more can you stretch the sports fans’ dollar,” he said.
The addition of producer Jerry Bruckheimer to the Oak View Group effort adds a well-respected name to the effort to land a hockey team as well.
“He’s been a guy who has been circling around ownership groups for a long time,” he said. “He’s a huge hockey guy. The league has a good relationship with him.”
Wyshynski said the league also has a good relationship with OVG CEO Tim Leiweke, himself a former member of the NHL Board of Governors, from his time as president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (owners of the Los Angeles Kings) and later Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment.
That said, what the final group looks like as a whole will determine its fate in the eyes of the league.
“I think it’s going to be the totality of the ownership group,” Wyshynski said. “Where is most of the money coming from, what’s their relationship with the Board of Governors.”
While Aquilini would be just one Seattle supporter in the league discussion, he likely wouldn’t be the only one. The Oak View Group has already partnered with Delaware North, a concessionaire company owned by Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, and has the financial backing of the Madison Square Garden company (owners of the New York Rangers).
But after Seattle stayed on the sidelines during the last round of expansion with no committed ownership group — with Las Vegas eventually awarded the league’s 31st team — Wyshynski wonders if the city becomes a relocation spot for a current franchise. That said, with an odd number of teams, and an imbalance between the NHL’s Eastern and Western Conferences, expansion makes sense.
“It’s a tough call, but the only thing that’s really going to remedy it is expansion,” he said.
There’s currently no set timeline for the league to add that 32nd team, but the timeline for the Las Vegas franchise may provide a blueprint for Seattle. That city was officially awarded a franchise last June, 16 months after launching a season-ticket drive.
In Seattle, the city hopes to reach a redevelopment agreement with the Oak View Group by the end of the year, with a tentative completion date of October 2020.
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