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O’Neil: Seattle’s hockey future gets brighter with Tod Leiweke leaving NFL

Tod Leiweke has been a key figure in running Seattle sports teams. (AP)

There is a thread that ties together the two most successful eras of Seahawks football.

Just one.

That thread is Tod Leiweke, which is why everyone in Seattle should stop and realize the significance of Leiweke’s departure as the NFL’s Chief Operating Officer. The expectation is that Tod will join his brother, Tim, at the Oak View Group, which is in charge of renovating the Seattle Center arena.

In other words: our city’s NHL future just got a whole lot brighter.

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Tod Leiweke stands alone in our city’s sports history, which is littered with showmen, carpetbaggers and cheapskates. He is quite simply the most successful sports executive that this city has ever known.

Tod’s arrival as Seahawks president in 2003 set the stage for Seattle’s first Super Bowl appearance two years later, and in 2010 he steered the franchise through an incredibly turbulent time before hiring the coach who delivered Seattle its first NFL championship.

In between those two bookends, all Leiweke did was oversee the most successful rollout of an expansion franchise in U.S. sports history as a minority owner in Sounders FC.

So after leaving Seattle to run the Tampa Bay Lightning with an ownership stake and then moving on to the NFL where he has been the past two years, Leiweke’s potential return to Seattle is a really big deal, coming at exactly the moment that the city is taking its initial steps toward securing an NHL franchise.

In fact, anyone interested in hockey should be doing cartwheels because there’s no one in Seattle sports history whose touch has been as golden as Leiweke when it comes to building successful franchises.

Understanding that is going to require a history lesson back to 2003 when the Seahawks were in their second season in a new stadium which they were not selling out. Their Super Bowl-winning coach, Mike Holmgren, had just been defrocked as GM, and the whole operation was being run by Bob Whitsitt, whose background was in evaluating basketball talent.

Two years later, Whitsitt was out, the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl with a season-ticket waiting list that ran into the thousands at a stadium that provided one of the best home-field advantages in the sport.

It also showed Leiweke’s ability to deftly maneuver through the egos and conflicts that bog down so many franchises all while building the business of the team around the customer experience.

I’m not going to tell you that Leiweke is some sort of genius. I haven’t been close enough to his day-to-day operations to say that his success is the result of his extraordinary intelligence.

What I do know is that those who’ve worked with him and for him rave about his ability to form a consensus and find a path forward even in the midst of a seeming crisis, which is exactly what happened in the second half of 2009.

Holmgren had walked away after a decade as Seattle’s head coach. The Seahawks were outmanned and undersized after five increasingly futile drafts under Tim Ruskell, the president whose inability to get a verdict on his future from owner Paul Allen caused him to up and quit five games before the end of the season.

The whole mess bottomed out the week before Christmas when the Seahawks failed to reach an agreement with Holmgren about returning to the franchise as president, and then the team went out and lost – at home – to a Buccaneers team that hadn’t won a road game in more than a year.

It was the worst 24-hour period in the franchise’s history that did not involve moving vans, and yet less than a month later, Seattle had hired the coach that would bring the franchise its first league title. In fact, Tod’s initial meeting with Pete Carroll took place at the house of his brother, Tim Leiweke.

Tod Leiweke didn’t play the situation perfectly. There was a big faux pas and some hurt feelings as he courted Carroll even while allowing Jim Mora – then the head coach – to conduct a season-ending press conference.

Carroll’s hiring wasn’t greeted as a home run, either. Many people looked at Carroll’s NFL resume and saw a guy with four years of head-coaching experience with two different franchises, which wasn’t all that much better than the guy the Seahawks had just fired in Mora.

But eight years later – as it appears Leiweke will once again be involved in Seattle sports – the results of his decision show that there’s no one who you’d rather have involved with a franchise in this city than Tod Leiweke.

More columns from Danny O’Neil