Geoff Baker: NHL Seattle's main goal at training facility: Luring players and getting them to bond

©The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — There won’t be any players added by NHL Seattle this year, but the perks being counted on to lure them here will start coming to fruition.

By next month, the site of a planned $80 million practice facility will be turned over to NHL Seattle to begin construction expected to take until the following summer. The design finalized last month by the team will prioritize giving players the latest in state-of-the-art creature comforts in their locker room, dining area and workout facilities.

The training facility is expected to be directly across from a higher-end hotel, allowing NHL Seattle to easily bring players up from the minors or in from other teams with minimal disruption. It will also have a players’ lot with 30 private parking spots so players can come and go with ease.

The dressing-room area will have its own whirlpool right where players change in and out of their street clothes. And the dining room will provide high-nutrition meals so players never have to leave the facility to eat elsewhere.

“The intent is to make this area comfortable so they’ll want to spend as much time as possible there,” said Lance Lopes, NHL Seattle executive vice president and general counsel, who is spearheading the project locally. “You want to create a culture where players want to be at the office, if you will.”

But there’s a fine line between lavishing players with comfort and fostering team camaraderie. NHL Seattle is prioritizing a strong “team culture” and wanted a design where players are made to interact as much as possible.

Much of the work designing the facility had been done between Lopes and former NHL Seattle senior adviser Dave Tippett, who left in May to become coach of the Edmonton Oilers. NHL Seattle hired Ron Francis as general manager last July and he has since tweaked some of the design, finalizing plans in a meeting with architects last month.

Francis, who returned home to North Carolina last Friday from the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic, said in a phone interview the biggest tweak was nixing a prior decision to have the coaching offices on an upper floor to create more space for those and the players’ locker room below.

“We just felt it was important to have them around the players rather than on a different level,” Francis said.

While some might assume moving the groups closer was a response to recent coaching-abuse allegations that spawned an NHL-wide discussion about player-coach relations, Francis insisted it was unrelated. “I have always seen the coaches’ offices on the same level as the locker room on all the teams I’ve been a part of over my career,” he said. “I think it works best that way.”

The reconfigured setup will also include a separate women’s changing room in case the team adds women to the coaching staff.

Another move to improve interaction was limiting the dining tables within the player lounge to six-seat versions.

“I think with six, everybody gets into the conversation,” Francis said. “When you start getting into 10 or 12, the conversation gets segmented.”

Some state-of-the-art additions will include a HydroWorx aquatic therapy pool with an underwater treadmill and resistance jets to allow for less stressful injury recovery.

“There’s less pressure if you’re working on joints and stuff,” Francis said.

There will be a high-heat “dry out” room where sweaty hockey equipment can be left by trainers to kill any bacteria before it gets worn again.

Even the lighting within the locker room will be high tech. The team is going with specialized Circadian lighting that can help limit the impact of time-zone travel either right before or immediately after a trip.

It will be similar to what’s found on modern airplanes, where lighting can be adjusted depending on whatever time zone is being traveled to.

Francis said the lighting choices were “critical” given that the locker facilities are underground and won’t have windows to natural light from outdoors.

It typically takes about 16-to-18 months to build an NHL training facility. OVG and NHL Seattle went with Kansas City-based Generator Studio as the lead architect and the firm will have somebody on site next month to oversee construction.

Generator just finished design on the recently opened Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, Mo., where the St. Louis Blues do their training. That facility is located 21 miles from St. Louis, unlike the Northgate complex in Seattle proper.

Lopes said the Northgate project is somewhat unique because of its more urban setting. And that has presented a variety of challenges and regulatory hurdles to overcome before the planned construction.

“Typically, you see these places being built out in the suburbs,” he said.

And Lopes would know about that, having visited the Missouri venue and more than a dozen other training facilities nationwide.

“We’ve tried to incorporate as many features as we can that we think can be helpful to our players,” he said.

The player part of things, of course, is all still theoretical since NHL Seattle won’t be acquiring any until the expansion draft about 17 months away. But once just a vision in some faraway future, the October 2021 franchise debut is now already a “next-year” thing.

And the green light for construction of what will be that team’s everyday headquarters has the whole thing feeling a lot more real.

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©2020 The Seattle Times