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Originally published July 26, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified July 27, 2012 at 2:17 PM

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Chicago investor has talked with Bellevue officials about an NHL arena

Don Levin says he has $100 million to spend on an arena, calls Seattle area best untapped hockey market in U.S.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An investor has publicly emerged to try to bring an NHL team to the Seattle area, and he's prepared to spend $100 million on an arena.

Don Levin, owner of a minor-league hockey team in Chicago, said he has talked to Bellevue officials about building an arena suitable to bring an NHL franchise to the region.

The development comes three days before the Metropolitan King County Council plans to discuss and possibly vote on investor Chris Hansen's proposal to build a $490 million NBA and NHL arena in Seattle's Sodo District. It appears to complicate an already contentious arena debate by raising the possibility of a pro-sports facility outside Seattle.

"It's probably the best market in the United States that does not have a hockey team demographically," Levin told The Seattle Times in a telephone interview Thursday.

Bellevue City Manager Steve Sarkozy confirmed he has had discussions with "a couple" of potential team owners, including Levin.

Levin's interest in bringing the NHL to Seattle first surfaced more than a year ago. He declined Thursday to discuss details of his talks with Bellevue officials, but said the city is attractive because of "a great piece of property they control right near the highway."

City Councilmember John Chelminiak said if an arena were to be built in Bellevue, it would likely be in the Wilburton or Bel-Red area, both of which are close to freeways and future Sound Transit light-rail stations.

"Easy to get in and get out," Levin said, noting that light rail would make the commute easier from Seattle and surrounding areas. "I think the city (Bellevue) has a good base of restaurants and hotels, so the teams could stay there and the fans could stay there. You'd be bringing in a lot of people to spend a lot of money."

Levin, who owns the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, thinks Seattle has great fans, but lacks winter sports. The Puget Sound area is home to two junior-hockey teams — the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips — but hasn't had a major professional team since the Seattle Metropolitans folded in 1924. He believes the NHL wants a team in Seattle, but a franchise isn't available.

Levin also said an NHL team in Seattle would attract hockey fans from Canada. The Vancouver Canucks were eighth in NHL attendance last season, averaging 18,884. Rogers Arena averaged 102.5 percent capacity despite an average ticket price of $68.38 that is nearly $10 higher than the NHL average, according to Team Marketing Report.

"I imagine there'd be thousands of Canadians that would come to every game because they can't get into the building in Vancouver because it's sold out and it's such a good team," Levin said. "That would give them an opportunity to come to the city for a weekend to see hockey."

Even as the Metropolitan King County Council plans to discuss and possibly vote on the Sodo arena plan put forward by Hansen, Levin said he's not limiting talks to just Bellevue. He's open to the possibility of bringing an NHL franchise to other cities and even partnering with other investors, including Hansen, a San Francisco hedge-fund manager who grew up in Seattle.

"I'd be interested in teaming up with anybody," Levin said.

Levin, Hansen and two Bellevue city officials denied media reports that hockey legend Wayne Gretzky met with Bellevue officials about NHL possibilities when he was out here this week.

Gretzky's agent Darren Blake said Gretzky flew to Seattle to see his friends, the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, play against the Mariners at Safeco Field.

"He's interested in getting back into hockey at some point," Blake said. "He has no specific ties to that area nor has he met or spoken with anybody in that area. If there was somebody there that was a lead guy, he'd be more than willing to listen, but these reports — there's nothing to them."

Levin, an entrepreneur who owns Chicago-based D.R.L. Enterprises, said his $100 million investment in an arena would still be on the table if he teamed up with another investor. His focus is to own an NHL franchise in the Seattle area, while Hansen's interest is in the NBA. An arena that is home to both an NBA and NHL franchise would help keep costs down.

The owner of an NBA team in Seattle could partner with Levin on a possible arena as well or could be a tenant in Levin's arena.

"I would look for a person to bring a basketball team to the building and work with them anyway I could to get that done," Levin said.

Levin says he's certain of one thing: An arena deal will happen in a market he thinks deserves it.

"It'll happen with me, it'll happen with Chris Hansen or it'll happen with someone else," Levin said. "It's going to happen. It's just when whichever city decides they want to pull the trigger."

Master Tesfatsion: mtesfatsion@seattletimes.com. Staff reporters Keith Ervin and Lynn Thompson contributed to this article.

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