How the Tacoma Dome could be the future home of the NHL in the Pacific Northwest

The Tacoma Dome, the SR-509 bridge, and the Thea Foss Waterway from the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in downtown Tacoma. (by SchmuckyTheCat [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons )

With a number of teams struggling financially, there have been various cities talked about for relocation. One of those places is Seattle. I'd hoped to get a more comprehensive write-up about the pros and cons of Seattle this offseason, as I grew up in that area, but that didn't happen and might be for another time. Which is too bad since one of our readers and friends of the site, MTBoltFan, has a really nice write up ready to be incorporated into such a thing. But I digress.

The problems with Seattle boils down into two things: ownership possibilities and an arena. The ownership situation is a bit murky, and I think we'll leave that for another day. There are potential owners, but nothing serious at this point.

As for the arena situation.... Seattle doesn't have a suitable arena, as the entire building called Key Arena is built around a basketball court, and Mercer Arena was demolished. There's been talk about building a facility in the suburb of Bellevue, but that's still being discussed. The two major junior team arenas seat 8513 (Everett Silvertips) and 6500 (Seattle Thunderbirds), respectively, which are far too small for an NHL-caliber team.

Simply put, there is no building available in Seattle, and almost no chance that Key Arena will be torn down and rebuilt - because it would have to be to work for hockey. It is physically impossible for Key Arena to be adapted for an NHL hockey rink. And due to many state construction projects in the Seattle area, there is no public money to build one, either.

And that leaves us with Tacoma, which is approximately 30 miles (50 km) south of Seattle.

A report surfaced yesterday in the Tacoma News Tribune that the Tacoma City Council is fielding the idea of a feasibility study to renovate the Tacoma Dome in order to lure in another NBA team and/or an NHL team. This is at the absolute beginning of the process. Approval for the feasibility study hasn't even been voted on by the council yet.

The Tacoma Dome, as it currently stands, is completely unsuitable to host a major league professional sport of any kind. While it is one of the largest free-standing wood-framed domes in the world, it is also nothing but an empty shell with removable seating. There are concessions, but they are very few. There is nothing resembling luxury suites - or suites at all, really. It's just one very big, empty room.

I watched my very first live hockey game in 1992 in the Tacoma Dome when the Tacoma Rockets (now the Kelowna Rockets) of the Western Hockey League (WHL) played there. The seating, which sounds like it hasn't been upgraded since then, has the sight lines for a football field. They play some of the state high school football playoffs there, and that's what the seating is obviously geared towards.

The poor sight lines are the real reason why major junior and minor league hockey failed in Tacoma. The seats are set too far from the rink, and they rise very shallowly. It's just not a good place to watch hockey, and never has been.

So in order to make the Tacoma Dome suitable for hockey, they're going to have to build up the interior to meet league specifications. I believe that the place seats around 18-20,000 for hockey, which are actually pretty good numbers for the NHL, but building a suitable interior will likely reduce that number.

And, yes, there is a hockey fan base in the Puget Sound region. Not only from the numerous military bases there, but also from the constant inflow of people moving into that area. The two major junior teams do very well for themselves as well; and the Seattle Thunderbirds / Breakers have been around since 1977. All this, despite the fact that the Vancouver Canucks try to do their very best to ignore that Washington State exists.

The location of the Tacoma Dome is very convenient to the freeways [MAP]. It's so convenient, in fact, that it's a notorious place for traffic congestion - even if there isn't an event going on there. And, yes, people would definitely drive down from Seattle to go watch games there. And they'd definitely drive up from Portland, too, which is two hours or so away. They'd also drive from Spokane as well, which is about a five-hour drive away.

(I've gone to Seattle Mariners games and have frequently run into people who had made the trip from Alaska and Montana just to come watch baseball - not as a vacation, and not to sight-see, but just to come watch baseball for the weekend.)

Then comes the cost of renovation. The city of Tacoma will have to foot the bill alone. They may be able to get Pierce County to go along, but they'll never get the state to. The state taxpayers are still paying for Safeco Field and CenturyLink (formerly Qwest) Field in Seattle - and will be paying for the Husky Stadium overhaul at the University of Washington. Not to mention some desperately needed transportation infrastructure upgrades in Seattle and around the state. State taxpayers are not going to agree to any measure to renovate the Tacoma Dome on top of all of that. Especially not with the economy the way it is right now.

So what the feasibility study, should one be done, will say is that a renovation needs to be done. It'll say that there is a fan base for both sports, and that it'll bring a lot of money into Tacoma and its surrounding communities. And it'll also say that it's going to cost a great deal of money and take a few years to do.

Potential owners will step up at that point and say that they'd be willing to buy a team and relocate it to the Seattle-Tacoma area - just as long as they won't have to pay for any of the renovation. People will scream and complain and protest about it, saying it shouldn't happen, for various reasons. And the people behind the potential arena in Bellevue will try to tell everyone that it'll never work in Tacoma. You know; the same old song and dance routine.

Then the city council will vote as to whether it should be done or not, or if they should put it up to a general vote among the city taxpayers.

And at that point, it'll be anybody's guess as to whether or not it'll go through. It probably will, since the Tacoma Dome is in need of major renovations, but the money available will dictate how extensive those renovations will be. It could all end up a watered-down version of the plans that would still leave the area without a facility to host an NHL team.

The NHL's been determined to put a hockey team in the Seattle area, and many are willing to help do that. But it all comes down to a building, as it has all along. Right now, Tacoma's thinking about fixing up what they have, but there's no guarantee that even if they do, it'll be suitable for the NHL or the NBA.

And that's assuming that the city of Bellevue doesn't beat them to it first.

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