By Andy Eide

The groundbreaking celebration was set for February 18th in the California desert. Free tickets had been distributed and presumably ceremonial shovels were acquired for various photo ops as the excitement for a new hockey arena in Palm Springs was building.

Five days prior to the event, it was cancelled.

The arena in question is a joint operation between Oak View Group and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, costing $250 million to result in a 10,000 seat facility to house NHL Seattle’s American Hockey League affiliate. Construction was set to start in February and the arena was to be finished in time for the beginning of the 2021-2022 AHL Season.

The reason given for the delay of the breaking ground event was “extenuating circumstances” and an apology for any inconvenience was offered by tribal officials. The delay hardly seemed like anything to worry about at the time. Arena deals are complicated and surely there were details to iron out between the tribe and Oak View Group.

Now, five months later, the arena is in limbo and the clock is ticking.

In June, OVG’s Tim Leiweke told the Desert Sun that the project was on hold due to the COVID-19 disease that has forced many events and projects into delay.

“Once we get past (the virus) we’ll make a decision if we’re gonna proceed,” Leiweke he told the Sun without any specifics on when they would reevaluate.

The ‘if’ in Leiweke’s statement lands heavy.

This was the first time that anyone hinted at the prospect of the arena not moving forward. As detailed in the Sun article, there have been issues surrounding a parking plan and other safety concerns to be settled. Nobody has gone on record to say that these issues are deal-breakers, however.

Could the arena deal in Palm Springs end up being delayed? What kind of repercussions would that have on NHL Seattle’s plan for an AHL affiliate?

When asked for clarification, OVG’s Senior Vice President of Entertainment overseeing the Palm Springs Arena, John Bolton, couldn’t offer much more detail.

“Given the current unprecedented times, discussions around arena construction timelines continue and we will provide updates when available as we work closely with the City of Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians,” Bolton said.

That statement feels more positive as the groups are still talking about timelines, giving the appearance that the deal is ultimately going to happen. The question of when, remains.

The AHL approved NHL Seattle’s bid for expansion to Palm Springs in September of 2019 and the new team was set to join the league for the 2021-2022 season, the same season that the NHL club would begin play.

Assuming that OVG and the Agua Caliente tribe can work out the kinks of the arena deal and begin construction, the timeline to begin play in the desert by next season appears to be in jeopardy. How fast can they build a 300,000 square foot facility?

If Palm Springs is delayed, or if the arena deal falls apart completely, where will, or can, NHL Seattle turn to for its AHL players in 2021?

Playing without a taxi squad is out of the question as NHL Seattle will need minor league players. Even in year one, there will be injuries, there will be call ups and getting players into the system and developing is key to long term successes.

NHL Seattle will need to have a plan if Palm Springs is delayed.

It’s unlikely that the team would find a temporary city to house an AHL squad as the logistics involved would be extensive and not worth the effort for one year.

Having an AHL team play out of Climate Pledge Arena is one option. The San Jose Sharks share the SAP Center and a practice facility with their affiliate, the Barracuda, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The Sharks are building a new, smaller building for the Barracuda, however.

Sharing an arena would present some travel issues as the AHL relies mostly on bus travel and Seattle would be isolated from the rest of the AHL’s Pacific Division which sees five of its seven clubs in California. Could those travel concerns be palatable for one season? Maybe.

The most likely recourse would be to split the affiliation with an existing AHL team.

For their inaugural season, the Vegas Golden Knights shared the Chicago Wolves with the St. Louis Blues. Vegas had 13 players who spent the majority of the 2017-2018 season in Chicago. Three of those players they had acquired through the NHL expansion draft, two were picked up via a trade, while eight were signed as free agents.

The Blues moved their affiliate the next season and the Knights have since purchased the San Antonio Rampage and relocated them to Henderson, Nevada, re-branding them as the Henderson Silver Knights.

Which team to join would also be a question. Currently, just 12 of the AHL’s 31 clubs are independently owned, with the rest owned by the NHL parent club. Seattle would have to work with one of the independents to split the roster.

If Seattle were to split a team for a year it would mean they would have fewer players in the AHL pipeline. Rather than a full roster of players, it would be half. Depending on what team they split with and who the other prospects are, playing time could be affected and as such, player development. It’s not a great long-term option but could bridge the year if needed.

The optimist says that the arena deal can get finalized and under construction shortly with enough time to be opened for the next AHL season. One thing working in Seattle’s favor is the uncertainty of when hockey seasons will start up again. If the AHL pushes back the start of this coming season, and therefore next season, Palm Springs could end up with more time to get the arena built.

But, in the meantime, NHL Seattle will need a contingency plan in case there is no arena for an AHL team to play in, come 2021.