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Originally published June 26, 2013 at 4:35 PM | Page modified June 28, 2013 at 1:03 AM

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Former Silvertips GM says Seattle will be good hockey city, but needs arena deal

The Phoenix Coyotes are still trying to work out a deal to stay in Arizona. But even if they don’t, don’t count on a move to Seattle until there’s an arena plan in place here.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Doug Soetaert began his hockey career stopping pucks, then graduated to stopping bucks.

The former NHL goalie worked in minor-league and junior-team front offices in Denver, Kansas City, Omaha and finally, Everett, where the buck stopped with Soetaert as general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Silvertips the past decade.

He understands hockey on and off the ice. As for Seattle’s NHL readiness, he offers a resounding “Yes!’’ With one caveat.

“They have to get an arena,’’ he says.

And that’s really the key to what makes an NHL city. Sure, some hockey pedigree helps.

But what matters to the NHL is infrastructure. In what’s still largely a gate-driven league, it’s all about the arena.

Fans here might not be hockey-immersed like in Toronto, Montreal, Detroit or Chicago. But nobody running the NHL cares.

Carolina Hurricanes fans didn’t know the “Original Six” from a six-pack. Folks in Atlanta ignored the NHL twice. Disney made a popular 1990s flick starring Emilio Estevez as a hockey coach, so the league gave Anaheim a team named after the movie. They moved a franchise to Dallas and the local paper prepped beat writers by making them watch Paul Newman’s “Slap Shot.”

But those places built rinks.

Put one in the Arizona desert, the league gallops in on camels.

Soetaert believes Seattle offers everything those cities do and more.

“There are a lot of devoted hockey fans out there,’’ says the former Snohomish resident, who moved back to Kansas City after the Silvertips let him go last year.

He’s high on Seattle’s population size. Says our wealth can pay NHL ticket prices and provide corporate support. He likes our 12th biggest television market.

There’s also proximity to the Vancouver Canucks and our grass-roots edge with the junior Silvertips and Thunderbirds. Soetaert says Everett fans even remembered the “Jason’’ mask he wore with the Rangers’ logo emblazoned on it when he played for New York in the 1970s.

But we need the arena. And we’re a ways away.

It’s far-fetched to think Seattle can just replace “NBA” with “NHL’’ on a Memorandum of Understanding with entrepreneur Chris Hansen and rush an arena plan so the Phoenix Coyotes can relocate by September. And no owner will commit $200 million here without that future arena guarantee.

Operating an NHL-only venue will alter projected revenues. The Mariners’ new regional sports network is also now the dominant player here and impacts any initial TV revenue plan Hansen had.

That could impact arena financing and any public help needed. That makes public vetting required.

If there’s anything Seattle should learn from the Coyotes’ debacle in Glendale, Ariz. – where that city and prospective new team owners are still haggling over an arena lease – it’s that public transparency is critical. Glendale might “mortgage’’ city hall to cover $50 million in guarantees to the NHL to run the Coyotes the past several seasons.

The city has already drained reserve funds for water, sanitation and landfill to make partial payments. The would-be owners also need $15 million annually from Glendale to repay an $85 million hedge-fund loan that is part of their $170 million Coyotes purchase.

Without it, the sale collapses.

NHL owners often have less equity in teams than counterparts in other sports. We don’t know yet who the Seattle owner would be, let alone what they’d put in, versus borrowing.

New York investors Anthony Lanza and Ray Bartoszek were mentioned, but Soetaert knows of other groups lurking. It’s possible they’d offer better deals for Seattle.

We can’t promise arenas to just anyone without a public process. And you don’t rush that in midsummer, with the citizenry focused on flipping burgers.

But do things right, Seattle could be NHL-ready in a year or two. So, it’s time to get moving.

There might be scores of closet hockey fans here, but success isn’t guaranteed.

Any team would start No. 4 in a town where NBC didn’t show the decisive game of the best Stanley Cup Final in years on its main station.

“That’ll change once there’s a team there,’’ Soetaert predicts.

He might be right. Get an arena and we’ll talk.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners.

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