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Wild welcome new NHL team, and balanced division schedule

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Seattle is joining the NHL as the 32nd franchise in 2021, the league is poised to have a balanced schedule again and the Wild will have a new division rival.

The yet-to-be-named team in the Emerald City will start play in the Pacific Division, nudging the Arizona Coyotes over to the Central Division, assuming the financially troubled club is still playing in suburban Phoenix in three years.

The Central is the only division among the four with only seven teams, which means alternating each season three home games and two road games against each division foe. An eight-team division and 16-team conference slate would allow the NHL to even that out, although the Board of Governors did not vote on scheduling realignment.

“I think for the game of hockey, it’s fabulous, for athletes and coaches alike,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said before Tuesday night’s game against the Canucks. “There are probably 70 more jobs to be had in hockey. I think Seattle’s been an overlooked market for 50 years. I think a rivalry between Seattle and Vancouver’s going to be amazing.”

In 1997, the Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets paid an $80 million expansion fee to join the NHL. The Seattle Hockey Partners group, led by billionaire David Bonderman, Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer and former Wild executive Tod Leiweke, paid a $650 million.

That’s $150 million more than was paid by the Vegas Knights, who started play last season and advanced to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals.

“I can’t say enough what Vegas did,” Minnesota general manager Paul Fenton said. “To me, it’s great for hockey. I didn’t want the ugly stepchild coming in and being a low-type of team. It was great. It sold it. Now let’s see what Seattle can do.”

Leiweke got his start in hockey as the Wild’s first president. He also worked in Vancouver and most recently helped build Tampa Bay into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Leiweke left the Lightning in 2015 to become the COO of the NFL and didn’t have any interest in leaving the league office until the project in Seattle began to gain traction.

Leiweke’s job will be to capitalize on a market whose demographics have changed significantly since he left the NFL’s Seahawks in 2010 after being largely responsible for the team hiring Super Bowl-winning coach Pete Carroll. Seattle is the largest market in the country without a winter pro sports franchise since the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Seattle’s hockey team will not debut until the 2021-22 season so that renovations can be made at the Key Arena, the Sonics’ former home.

The Coyotes’ move to the Central does not make a ton of sense geographically, but there has been speculation that the struggling franchise could move to Houston if it fails to gain its footing in the desert.

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