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NHL Seattle scores minor league franchise in Palm Springs

The American Hockey League awarded Seattle an expansion franchise in Palm Springs, to play at a new $250 million arena.

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Seattle is connected to Palm Springs with multiple flights a day — and now the cities share a hockey future, as well.  

NHL Seattle, in connection with the Oak View Group and the Agua Caliente tribe, made an announcement on Monday that was months, if not years, in the making. 

The American Hockey League has awarded Seattle an expansion franchise in Palm Springs, to play at a new $250 million sports and entertainment complex on tribal land. The arena will open in 2021, the first year of the yet-unnamed Palm Springs franchise.

"I bet there are a lot of hockey fans up in Seattle, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, getting 4 feet of snow. You know, coming to Palm Springs for a hockey game is probably not a bad idea," joked Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon. 

Mayor Moon was at Monday's press conference for the joint announcement. He was flanked by OVG's CEO Tim Leiweke and his brother Tod, CEO of Seattle's NHL team. 

"The building is going to be more than just home to the great American Hockey League team and Seattle franchise, it's also going to bring world class music to the Coachella Valley," Tim Leiweke said Monday. 

He acknowledged the group had been targeting the area for two years, ever since the Seattle project came closer to reality and since multiple Seattle business partners vacationed in the region. For instance, Tod Leiweke owns a vacation home in the Palm Springs-area.  

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Yet it is clear the project is about more than just hockey. Tim Leiweke said the Coachella music festival, along with Stagecoach, are top draws for the region, which has never had a top-of-the-line arena. The new venue will likely host 150-160 events a year, and also could play a role in the future of the NBA's 'G' league franchise, which is partially owned by the tribe.

Agua Caliente tribal spokesperson Tom Davis, who worked on negotiations, said the basketball component is a possibility, but that his organization has been looking for a venue like this one for "about 10 years."  

The 10,000-seat arena will be built adjacent to an existing parking garage and tribal casino, and about a 5-minute drive from the Palm Springs airport. That, in theory, will allow the Seattle franchise to shuttle players back and forth with ease. 

The AHL will now have six teams in California, including Seattle's affiliate, in the cities of Stockton, San Jose, San Diego, Ontario and Bakersfield.

"I think it's going to be a good fit," said Grant Fuhr, a hockey hall-of-famer and 5-time Stanley Cup champion. As the legendary goalie sat on the deck of a downtown Palm Springs restaurant, he recalled how the area has changed. 

"When we first came down here (with the Edmonton Oilers), we practiced in a little half rink in the mall," he says. Now decades later, he says the Seattle team "will have a nice brand new building, they'll have a nice following."  

Fuhr, who grew up in Alberta, said Palm Springs was a mecca for Canadians in the winter, which could help with creating a hockey fan base. 

"There are a ton of Canadians here in the winter, you'll probably see here in the next 2 to 2-and-a-half weeks. They'll come down and the population grows by about 400,000. So it's all probably 70 percent Canadian, Midwestern people."

Whereas there had been consternation about NHL expansion, there was not much push back on this move. The Board of Governors quietly voted to approve the application last Friday, and allowed the Leiwekes to make the grand announcement today.

“On behalf of the AHL’s Board of Governors, I am thrilled to welcome the NHL Seattle and OVG ownership teams and the city of Palm Springs as the league’s 32nd franchise. Palm Springs has all the makings of an outstanding hockey market, and will further strengthen the growing base of our sport in California.”

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