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Originally published Monday, July 26, 2010 at 7:46 PM

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Tod Leiweke leaves to become CEO, minority owner of Tampa Bay Lightning

Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke not only grew the club into the Cadillac of the city's sports scene he then repaired the relationship between Paul Allen's Trail Blazers and the city of Portland and ushered the Seattle Sounders FC into the MLS.

Seattle Times staff reporter

RENTON — Tod Leiweke didn't pick the players. He didn't coach them, either.

Leiweke may have been even more important than that in the business of Paul Allen's sports enterprises.

He was the public face for the private owner, hired as Seahawks CEO in 2003 by the man who saved pro football in the Northwest.

Leiweke not only grew the Seahawks into the Cadillac of the city's sports scene, he then repaired the relationship between Allen's Trail Blazers and the city of Portland and ushered the Seattle Sounders FC into Major League Soccer.

On Monday, he walked away from the triple-crown sports entity to become the CEO and minority owner of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.

"You get to a point in your life where sort of a dream comes true," Leiweke said.

Fitting that Leiweke was sitting in a room on the ground floor of the Seahawks' headquarters when he said that. After all, he was one of the biggest reasons that building exists in Renton.

Leiweke was a veritable cornerstone for Allen's Vulcan Sports and Entertainment division.

"I'm sorry to see him go, but I know hockey is his first love," Allen said in a statement announcing Leiweke's departure.

Leiweke is a lifelong hockey fan, someone who still plays in a recreational beer league and has twice worked in an NHL front office — first with the Vancouver Canucks, then serving as president of the Minnesota Wild — before the Seahawks hired him.

Leiweke was rumored as a potential candidate for Lightning CEO earlier this spring. He denied those rumors as recently as April.

The ante was upped with the offer of a slice of ownership to the team, whose majority owner is Jeff Vinik. Steve Yzerman is the franchise's general manager.

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But even with a minority ownership stake, Leiweke said this decision wasn't easy.

"The dream came with some asterisks," he said. "The asterisk is that I've given this place everything I've had, and we've built something special here. And walking away from that, those are the things that do keep you awake at night."

Leiweke will fly to Florida this week to be welcomed to the Lightning, but he will return to Seattle and continue serving as Seahawks CEO until a successor is hired. That was a provision Leiweke sought from the outset of discussions with the Lightning.

"I wasn't going to walk in and tell Paul Allen, 'I'm giving my two-week notice,' " Leiweke said.

Leiweke said the process of finding a replacement will take months, not weeks. The job may change for Leiweke's successor. Larry Miller is the Trail Blazers president, someone Leiweke characterized as a "superb" executive. It's possible — perhaps even likely — that Leiweke's successor will serve as CEO of the Sounders and Seahawks.

Describing the logistics of the succession is much easier than defining the significance of Leiweke's departure.

When Leiweke was hired in 2003, the Seahawks were preparing for their second season in a new stadium. The season-ticket roll call was 30,000, and they didn't sell out his first game as CEO. The Seahawks have reached that sellout total every game since, and Seahawks season-ticket holders now exceed 60,000.

Leiweke's departure comes after a turbulent eight months. Tim Ruskell resigned as Seahawks president in December. Jim Mora was fired as coach in January and replaced by Pete Carroll — whom the Seahawks initially contacted before letting Mora go. Then there was the change in Portland, where Kevin Pritchard was fired as general manager despite rebuilding the team to make the playoffs the past two seasons.

Leiweke resisted any insinuation that turbulence is prompting his departure.

"I expected that that might be a question asked," he said. "The fact is that seven years ago, the challenges I faced when I walked in here were far greater than any I had faced in the last year."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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