Ken Griffey Junior was Seattle’s biggest star, still is.

Seattle loves Ken Griffey Jr.

Seattle loves Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Mariners Hall of Fame Saturday and now awaits his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. 46,027 fans filled Safeco Field in a season where fans have rarely filled Safeco Field. The city’s longstanding love affair with Junior serves as a reminder of the gulf between the glory of the past versus the struggles of the present.

Fans lined up around block to get in for Griffey’s Hall of Fame night

Fans lined up around block to get in for Griffey’s Hall of Fame night

Growing up in Canada I watched many of the Seattle Mariners prospects play for their AAA affiliate, the Calgary Cannons. Edgar Martínez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, Danny Tartabull and even a young Alex Rodriguez all made stops on their way to the big club. However, the one player who never made the trip north was Griffey Jr. Too talented for AAA, “the Kid” jumped directly from AA to the majors as a teenager. So, like everyone else, I watched and admired the growing talent that was Ken Griffey Jr. through his Sportcenter highlights. Before long, he joined the short list of the world’s best athletes, Bo, Gretzky, Jordan, Montana and Griffey.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in 2005 that I realized just how much Griffey meant to Seattle. Year after year, the Mariners were awful and at home games, they replayed clips of “The Double” repeatedly. The glow from Junior, an aging Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson clearly hung over the new Mariners teams. As an outsider, the video tributes seemed strange and a little sad. Here was a team with so little history, that it was celebrating a divisional series as its golden era. Can you imagine the Yankees waxing poetic about the accomplishments of the 2004 team? Seattle was still in love with Griffey and no Alex Rodriguez, John Olerud or Adrian Beltre was going to make them forget their adopted son.

That love was on full display in the summer of 2007 when Junior returned to Safeco Field, known affectionately as “the house that Griffey built”. 46,340 fans came out, the sixth largest crowd at the time, to catch a glimpse of the 37 year old “Kid”. Standing ovations, ceremonies and an outpouring of appreciation marked the occasion. Again, the whole weekend was a little uncomfortable to an outsider as the Mariners lost 16-1 amid cheers for an opponent. The whole scene was in stark contrast to the venom surrounding A-Rod’s return after signing for more money on a lesser team within the division.

No, Griffey was different. He left to play on the team he grew up with. He left to be closer to his family in Florida. He left for less money. The move was logical and understood, but for Seattle fans it didn’t hurt any less. He was their first superstar and indeed the city’s biggest sports star. Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy and Walter Jones were (or will be) Hall of Famers, but never ignited imaginations the way Junior did. Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Sean Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck made it deeper into the playoffs, but weren’t the face of their sports.

Junior grew up as a player in Seattle just as baseball grew up as a major league attraction in Seattle. Indeed, Griffey was so revered because he led the first wave of Mariners success in the 90’s. In sports, like life, the first time is always special. A 25 year old Griffey led a talented 1995 Mariners team that included Buhner, Martinez, Johnson, and catcher Dan Wilson. The “Refuse to Lose” crew caught the imagination of a city that had waited two decades for a contender. The Mariners staged a thrilling come from behind pennant before beating the Yankees in the playoffs to cement the teams place in Seattle lore. Later an aging 2000 Mariners team (including a 41 year old Rickey Henderson?) also made it to the ALCS, led by Rodriguez’s amazing 40/40 season, but that team is largely forgotten. No, the first time is always the most exhilarating, and the shame of it all is that the 1995 core was never able to advance to the World Series. Losing Johnson and then Griffey slammed the window shut, reminding Seattle how rare such talents were.

Mariners-for-Griffey

During his 2007 speech to the Seattle faithful, Griffey made a not-so subtle reference to his return. It was strange considering that he was playing for the Reds at the time, but the circle was completed when Griffey made his return home in 2009. He was the one star that loved Settle as much as they loved him. Randy was theirs, but he was discontent and traded too early. A-Rod was theirs, but he left them for money and fame. The Sonics were theirs, but left for a city that would build an arena. Griffey left for the right reasons and returned to the city when it was all over. Old girlfriends don’t return years later saying “I always remembered you”. Griffey did just that. He was the original Mariners star showing the current star, Ichiro how to let the team and city love him. Ichiro, for his part, was ecstatic to play with his childhood hero and it made for a happy ending.

So, the Griffey memories begin to fade together – the backwards hat, the Spiderman catch at the wall, home runs in eight straight games, the all-star homerun off the warehouse in Baltimore and the slide into home. Until the team can provide new memories of success, the images of Griffey will remain frozen in time, a reminder of an electrifying past when the present is so non-descript. The torch has passed to ARod, Ichiro Suzuki and now Felix Hernandez, but the stature of each lacks the added value of team success that can be shared with the city. For now, Griffey is a symbol the very best of the Mariners and the Seattle sports and that is why he is so loved here.

Not everyone is so loved by Mariners fans

Not everyone is so loved by Mariners fans

Griffey-bigscreen

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The NHL in Seattle: Can Key Arena provide a temporary home?

key_arena

Last week, the City of Seattle and King County announced that Seattle native Christopher Hansen has submitted a proposal to build a new arena to host future NBA and NHL teams. Hansen will raise $290 million privately to pair with $200 million in public funds. Any additional cost overruns will be the responsibility of private investors. Public funding will be accounted for through revenue generated by the new arena, thus avoiding any new tax burden on the public. Importantly, the proposal bypasses the need for any funding at the state level and is essentially paid for by user fees in Seattle only.

The new arena is planned to be built in a region of Seattle near both CenturyLink Field (Seahawks & Sounders) and Safeco Field (Mariners). One of the main concerns about this location revolves around traffic. The arena would be near arteries that supply the Port of Seattle, so some thought must be made about methods to prevent any slowing of commerce. Parking is also an issue with garages at Safeco and CenturyLink fields providing 2000 stalls each.  By comparison, the Rogers Arena in Vancouver provides 7000 stalls within a 15 minute walk. Planning will need to minimize the overlap in events among the five teams that play in the area (see schedule below).  Avoiding NFL and MLS games should not be difficult due to the low number of home dates for these teams. The Mariners, however, will require a number of home dates that may overlap with the NBA and/or NHL. Since all three typically have night games during the week, there will surely be times when events are happening at both venues. As it stands, Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development requires teams at CenturyLink and Safeco to plan a minimum of 4 hours between the end of one event and the start of another. With the addition of two more teams, it would seem difficult to maintain compliance.

Sports-schedules1

Traffic and parking aside, an important question is where exactly would a new NBA/NHL team play until a new arena is built? The most obvious choice is Key Arena (see photo). Built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, Key Arena underwent major renovations in 1994. As a basketball facility, a new NBA team should be able to play there temporarily, but NHL hockey might be a different issue. When configured for hockey, Key Arena provides only 9,000 unobstructed seats (and 58 luxury suites). I have played hockey at Key Arena and can confirm that the dressing rooms will require some renovating before they are close to suitable by NHL standards. Although two junior teams, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips play in buildings designed for hockey, both are on the smaller side for NHL crowds (6,500 and 8,300 respectively). The Tacoma dome can accommodate large crowds for hockey, but it is unlikely that the city of Seattle will allow a team to locate outside city limits (Everett is 30 minutes north of Seattle, Tacoma 45 minutes south). No, the Key Arena is almost certainly the venue to be chosen as the city has no major tenant for it now or in the foreseeable future (unless you count the Seattle Storm). Some voices, including Mariners transportation director Susan Ranf even suggest that the Key Arena should be redeveloped as a permanent site for any incoming NBA/NHL teams.

keyarenahockey3

So, can a venue like Key Arena host a NHL team for 1 or 2 years while a modern arena is being constructed? In Quebec City, there are estimates of annual losses in the range of $20 million for a team that stays in the 15,000 seat Colisee with its lack of luxury boxes. However, many teams have made small venues work on a temporary basis. Before the Shark Tank was built, the San Jose Sharks played in the Cow Palace (1991-1993), an arena that seated just over 11,000. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their first year (1992) in the 11,000-seat Expo Hall before moving to the much larger Thunderdome.  The Carolina Hurricanes played two years (1997-1999) at Greensboro Coliseum (23,000 seats), where they averaged just 8,637 fans. So, there does seem to be a precedent for arenas of this size, but the question depends largely on the magnitude of financial loss that the new owners are willing to absorb while a new venue is built.

And finally, there is the question of whether Seattle has enough fans to support an NHL team. There exists surprisingly little hockey culture in Seattle, especially when one considers how close to the Canadian border we are.  The two main recreational leagues (Greater Seattle Hockey League and Cascade Hockey League) together include about 120 teams, though the vast majority are beginners. The Seattle Jr. Totems (“Totems” is my early pick for NHL team name) are the travel team for minor hockey players and the University of Washington has a club team. There are few arenas in Seattle and even those are found almost exclusively on the outskirts of town. Within Seattle itself, there are no hockey arenas to be found (see map).

The two junior teams draw small, but respectable crowds (see table below). Canadian WHL teams draw slightly larger crowds in cities with established NHL teams. The $200 million dollar question is whether Seattle can be a hockey town. The Seattle Sounders Football Club exceeded all expectations when they began play, though it can be argued that there was more soccer tradition in the city given the mild weather year round. The Vancouver Canucks would be a natural rival to be sure, and I have noticed that many Vancouver fans come down for Giants games in Everett and Seattle, so presumably this spillover would help an NHL team as well.

Team                                      2011-2012 Average Attendance

  • Seattle Thunderbirds         4862
  • Everett Silvertips                 4922
  • Calgary Hitmen                    6266
  • Vancouver Giants                6000
  • Edmonton Oil Kings           5007

So, a new movement is afoot to build an arena and entice NBA/NHL teams to come to Seattle. Much work on the arena, NBA and NHL fronts awaits, but the sad Seattle sports scene finally has some positive news. Can a NHL team make Key Arena work? Can they fill Key Arena when they get here? Will Seattle support a professional hockey team long term? These are all important issues to consider for a new NHL team in Seattle, but just because there’s a goalie doesn’t mean we can’t score.

Update: Developer Chris Hansen spoke in front of Seattle City Council Wednesday morning and stated,”Renovating KeyArena again is not an option, as the venue is not big enough for NHL hockey games.”

 arena-location
 Future arena location south of Safeco Field.

 

Read the related article: “Why NHL relocation looks to Seattle”

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The Wayne Gretzky analysis

Gretzky-StatueHockey boxscores have always included goals, assists, points, +/- and penalty minutes. But more recently, statistics such as shots, hits, time on ice (TOI) and number of shifts have been recorded as well. How much do these metrics add to our understanding of player performance? Well, hits are a rough, though reasonable proxy for a player’s physicality. Shots seem like a pretty obvious measure of offensive productivity (you can’t score if you don’t shoot). But what about TOI? The best players should be on the ice the most, but that doesn’t mean much if you aren’t winning your shifts. Perhaps there is an upper limit to how long someone can stay on the ice? Players that are in better shape, who are more economical in their energy expenditure, or are just physiological freaks should be able to stay on the ice longer and would have more opportunity to succeed.

“Anchor” defensemen are likely to log more time than forwards. This year Dan Boyle leads the league with over 26 minute per game. In the 1990’s elite defensemen like Chris Chelios and Ray Bourque averaged over 30 minutes a game. Forwards cannot log nearly as much time, but Kovalchuk leads the league this year at just over 22 minutes per game. His 32 points and –26 rating are an example of why time on the ice doesn’t necessarily equal productivity, offensively or defensively. On the other hand, points leader Daniel Sedin logs a tidy 18 minutes per game, with 69 points and a +22 rating.

TOI has been recorded for quite some time, but records are not readily available. NHL.com has TOI statistics going back to the 1998-199 season. Which is too bad, because it would be really interesting to see where some of the games great players in history sit. I have always wondered about the case of Wayne Gretzky. I watched many games live between the Oilers and Flames in the 80’s and remembered that Gretzky always looked like he could stay on the ice forever. He was always in control of his body and spent energy in spurts, with little wasted skating motion. It also seemed like Wayne could recover more quickly than other players allowing him to return to the ice faster and that in turn created match-up problems. So the statistic that could shed some light on this notion would be TOI.

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Wayne Gretzky

So, being a complete geek, I grabbed two game tapes of Gretzky and recorded his TOI. Did Wayne have some special energy saving technique or freaky physiological mutation? Well, the game tape should help answer those questions. The games were game 5 from the 1984 Stanley cup finals between Edmonton and New York and game 7 of the western conference finals between Los Angeles and Toronto. For comparison, I have listed the top point getter in the playoffs over the last decade. Did Wayne log more TOI or shifts than a typical teams top playoff performer?

Table 1. Historical time on ice and number of shifts for leading playoff scorers.

Name Series/Game TOI Shifts Shift Length
Danny Briere Flyers-Hawks 2010 19:37 26.1 0:45
Evgeni Malkin Penguins-Wings 2009 20:57 22.4 0:56
Henrik Zetterberg Wings-Penguins 2008 22:35 28.6 0:47
Daniel Alfredsson Senators-Ducks 2007 23:19 29.2 0:47
Eric Staal Hurricanes-Oilers 2006 19:47 26.3 0:45
Brad Richards Lightning-Flames 2004 23:28 29.1 0:48
Jamie Langenbrunner Devils_Wild 2003 17:33 25.0 0:42
Peter Forsberg (Wings-Hurricanes) 2002 18:09 27.5 0:39
Joe Sakic Avalanche-Devils 2001 21:32 34.1 0:37
Brett Hull Stars-Devils 2000 19:59 25.7 0:46
Peter Forsberg (Stars-Devils) 1999 21:39 30.0 0:43
Steve Yzerman Wings-Capitals 1998 22:41 28.0 0:48
Wayne Gretzky Kings-Leafs Conf. Finals Game 7, 1993 23:54 26 0:55
Wayne Gretzky Oilers-Islanders Stanley Cup Game 5, 1984 23:00 25 0:55

As it turns out, Wayne did not log some huge number of minutes. His TOI is higher than modern day players, but only by a couple of minutes. Given that this is based only on two games for Gretzky, it is hard to say that he was logging a lot more time than your “average” star player. It would also be interesting to note how much ice time players of Wayne’s era typically logged. In the 1993 game against the Leafs, Doug Gilmour logged more ice time than Wayne. So, again, Gretzky’s TOI didn’t seem to be out of the norm.  Interestingly, in both games, Wayne logged the most time and scored almost all his points in the first half of each game.

Gretzky

OK, one last little bit of information. It’s always hard to compare players between eras, and almost impossible to do so between sports. However, not many people follow hockey that closely, and fewer still can appreciate just how singular Wayne Gretzky’s records are. So, I calculated Wayne’s equivalent scoring from the other major sports. This is a purely statistical analysis, so you’ll have to debate other differences yourself. Regardless, it provides a quick way to help talk with a non-hockey sports fan.

Table 2. Wayne Gretzky’s equivalent scoring based on 2010 season statistics.

Sports Scoring metric
MLB 26.2 wins
NBA 38.3 points
NFL 6760 yards passing

How would Gretzky have looked as a football player? We might just find out: Trevor Gretzky Football

– Mike

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