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How Portland missed out on Seattle's Kraken craze
It wasn't so long ago that the NHL wanted this for Portland — not big brother.
PORTLAND — Sometime in the late-90s, as the Trail Blazers assembled back-to-back Western Conference Finals runs, then-CFO Jim Kotchik found himself in an office with team owner Paul Allen, Allen’s sister, Jody, Blazers GM Bob Whitsitt and a few of Allen’s crew from Seattle.
The Microsoft co-founder seemed caught off-guard that payroll levels were reaching all-time highs. As Kotchik tells The I-5 Corridor, Allen oversaw everything that happened with the Blazers, but the billionaire didn’t often realize the totality of the bottom line as he assembled a roster that came a Duncan, Shaq and Kobe away from the NBA Finals.
“We basically had 10 first-round draft picks that Bob had acquired for us without ever being in the lottery,” Kotchik says. “But they all had big contracts, so when you put the luxury tax on it, they ran it up to about a $150 million loss. And Paul looked at me and said, ‘Does anyone in professional sports lose as much money as me?’
“I can see Jody looking at him like, ‘Yeah, Paul, you’re an idiot for losing all this money.’ And I don’t know what possessed me to pop this out of my mouth, but I said, ‘No, Paul, I think you’re No. 1 in that regard.’”
But it was basketball — Allen’s one true love outside of music — and this was the Blazers, the team he bought in 1988 from Larry Weinberg, who introduced Allen as, “First of all a fan. Unless you’re a fan, nothing else counts in this ownership.”
What’s a few million for love?
But when it came to everything else, Kotchik says the late Allen was a businessman who needed to see agreeable numbers before jumping into anything. And he’s telling me this anecdote about the Blazers over beers, a few blocks away from an ice rink, to illustrate how close Portland actually came to landing an NHL franchise.
See, hockey has a grip on the area just north of here. The Seattle Kraken are deep into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a destination the team reached in just its second year of existence in a season played in front of 17,151 fans per game in an arena with a listed capacity of 17,000. Walk around Washington from Vancouver to Friday Harbor and you’ll be greeted by hats with anchors, jerseys adorned with “Grubauer” on the back and welcomed discussion about the rules of icing.
“In roughly 48 hours, Seattle Center activity will balloon around the team and buzz the Kraken built. In April. For hockey. While two teams skate on recycled rainwater. Very Seattle and not Seattle at all.
Whether the franchise will ever reach the same perch as the 1990s Mariners or mid-2010s Seahawks seems immaterial. For the professional hockey obsession developing in a baseball town that became a football city, it’s one hell of a start.”
But a quarter-century ago, the NHL wanted this for Portland — not big brother. Ever since the Rose Garden opened in 1995, Oregon sat right at the top of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s list of future destinations. The arena was built with hockey in mind and Portland’s support for the sport dates back to the Rosebuds becoming the first American team to have its named engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1916.
“I think there’s probably good potential for NHL hockey in Portland,” Bettman told The Oregonian in 1996 as the league looked to expand. “The only problem with that is: We don’t have applications.”
Mainly, because Allen wasn’t a fan. Kotchik thought he could change that.
“He was basketball all the way and had real fears about whether this would cannibalize the Trail Blazers and whether there was enough sponsorship money in the city to go around…yada…yada…yada…fast-forward one time I’m in a meeting with him pitching the financials and he says, ‘You know what? I might like hockey.’
“And I tell him, ‘Paul, you’ll love hockey.’”
They just needed the right team.
Andy McNamara thinks about writing a book someday — at the very least, he figures it might be worth it to start taking some notes.
How’s this for an array: McNamara worked in Oregon’s athletic department during the Mariota years, called Timbers games in the pre-MLS days, spent time on the Park Blocks and began his career in Portland working as the media relations guy for the Pythons of the World Indoor Soccer League.
Working with the Pythons and doing stats for the Blazers, McNamara spent plenty of time in the Rose Garden in the 90s, including one memorable night: he recalls watching Monday Night Football with Mario Lemieux in the press room between periods of a preseason game between Pittsburgh and Anaheim.
Lemieux was hurt — so too was superstar Jaromir Jagr — but 8,511 showed up on a Monday night in September to watch a 3-3 tie in Portland. Said NHL spokesman Arthur Pincus that night: “These are one-time things. You have to gauge if there is interest for 41 nights and possibly the playoffs.”
Kotchik believed there was, even before he took the job as Blazers CFO in 1996. Kotchik went to UO and seasoned himself as a hockey fan with Portland Buckaroos games in the 1960s, time on the board of the Portland Amateur Hockey Association and coaching his son’s youth teams.
He had season tickets for the Winterhawks. He had season tickets for the Blazers. He knew the Portland sports landscape well enough that, when during his interview with the Blazers, he had an immediate answer when asked how many tickets he believed they could sell for an NHL franchise.
“I think you could get a season-ticket base of 13,500 fairly quickly,” Kotchik said. “And it could grow from there.”
But with the NHL looking to expand, Allen wasn’t looking to start a new franchise for an $80-million asking price.
"We basically decided it wouldn't hurt us to wait a few years and let the market grow a little more and also to see how things go with the NHL in general," Blazers senior vice president J.E. Isaac told The Oregonian in 1997.
From Allen in 1998: “I'm not anti-hockey at all, but I'm not a hockey fan, so the financial figures would have to make sense.”
And that, Kotchik tells me, is where the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the story.
While Allen didn’t want to sink his money into something new, he wasn’t opposed to a good deal. So when the NHL came calling in 1999 with the Penguins in bankruptcy court, the league had a willing ear.
“Look,” Kotchik says, “I’m an accountant. When variable revenue exceeds variable expenses even by a dollar — when you have a big fixed-cost facility like that — you go ahead and do it.”
Allen liked that the Penguins payroll came in $40 million less annually than the Blazers with $10 million of that going to Jagr, the best player in the game. Shoot, Allen was spending $25 million a year to get a combined 25 points per game out of Scottie Pippen and Damon Stoudamire.
Allen put $80 million into an escrow account. Blazers brass drew up plans to add additional sky suites to the Rose Garden and planned locker room expansions. Kotchik spent three months working with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly so Portland could hit the ground running.
This city, once home to a minor league team in the 1950s with a live penguin as its mascot, was ready to pounce.
“I was convinced that the $80 million price, along with Paul Allen’s money, [meant]the best solution out of bankruptcy was for Portland to own the team and to move it,” Kotchik says.
On June 25, 1999, a United States Bankruptcy Court judge disagreed. The court approved a plan that restructured the franchise’s $100 million-plus in debt in a way that, among other things, turned $20 million of what it owed Lemieux into an equity stake for the future hall of famer.
Said Daly: “We’re very happy; we’re very gratified. We think it’s important to keep hockey in Pittsburgh.”
That day inside the Rose Garden, McNamara noticed arena staff assembling what looked to be some sort of welcoming event.
“They were ready to hold a press conference,” McNamara says, “Then when the deal happened it was like, poof, it was gone.”
In 2021, Lemieux’s group sold the Penguins for an estimated $900 million.
For a period it seemed like any time a franchise ran into issues with its arena, the NHL would put a call into Portland. When the Phoenix Coyotes went bankrupt in 2000, Portland was there.
A few years later, Kotchik had Sabres scout Jim Benning, a former Winterhawk, give him the full scouting report of the organization over beers at a Sherwood McMenamins when the Buffalo franchise filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
Again, no go.
After he left the Blazers in 2003, Kotchik even helped author a two-page report that was submitted to Phil Knight about potential NHL ownership.
“Wasn’t interested,” he says.
He still thinks Allen would have become a fan if he saw the game up close. It was too hard back then to follow the game on TV before High-Definition. Allen reportedly took another look at the Coyotes in 2013. He died in 2018.
Kotchik is retired, has plenty of time to talk hockey between rounds of golf and is planning on watching Game 2 of the Seattle-Dallas series after this. I am too — after picking up the skates I dropped off for sharpening nearby.
That, he says, was the best part about his gig with the Blazers — on the weekends, Kotchik would bring family and friends out to the Coliseum to skate on a fresh sheet.
“There’s nothing like walking into the building when the lights are on, the ice is clean, the nets are out,” he says. “It’s just really cool.”
— Tyson Alger, The I-5 Corridor
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