The NHL’s newest franchise doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s already forging its identity — and the league is all the better for it.
“I think from the beginning when you walk in you realize that the organization looks a little different than maybe other hockey organizations around the league,” said NHL Seattle director of hockey strategy and research Alexandra Mandrycky.
Mandrycky was the first hockey operations hire in Seattle — and the first sign that this is a franchise looking to do things a little differently, both in terms of diversity and its attitude towards analytics.
“It’s really exciting,” Mandrycky, 29, said of the rare opportunity to build a team from the ground up. “So often when you come into any business and you’re hired for this position, you’re walking into something that already exists. You’re trying to maybe help change a culture that’s pre-existing. Here, it’s such an exciting challenge because we really get to lay the foundation — we get to create the culture.”
While the on-ice roster is still a ways away from taking shape, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and the rest of the leadership core have been busy assembling an organization as diverse as the city it calls home. What truly separates Seattle from other pro sports clubs is its devotion to diversity. The organization currently has a 50/50 gender split throughout, and a leadership team that features women in more than half of its VP roles.
“Ultimately, the test for us is, how will we look on opening day? Will we look like the community we serve? Will we look like our fanbase?” Leiweke recently told Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson. “I think there’s a real movement afoot and it’s really exciting to see that glass ceilings are being broken all around.”
Leiweke is no stranger to Seattle, nor to the art of bringing an expansion franchise to life. He revived the NFL’s Seahawks into the perennial contenders we know today, and also launched the city’s Major League Soccer team, the Sounders. On the hockey front, he helped launch the Minnesota Wild and, most recently, was integral in building up the Tampa Bay Lightning into a formidable force in the Eastern Conference.
But the former NFL COO is not resting on his laurels as he takes on this new challenge.
“I think that when you’re hiring people, one way that a lot of that happens is you think about who you’ve worked with and who you’ve had good experiences with,” he said. “And when you’ve come from the sports business where it’s a lot of men, there’s a tendency to sort of round up the usual suspects. I think that we’ve not felt that pressure. We’ve been hiring early in a very thoughtful sort of way.”
Leiweke has had plenty of help in the process, learning from those he’s surrounded himself with in Seattle — people like Mandrycky, general manager Ron Francis, and VP of human resources April West — as well as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and executive VP of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs Kim Davis.
When it comes to the expansion-team challenge of cultivating a diverse fanbase, Davis pointed to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“We know the demographics have shifted across North America – macro demographics, but micro demographics absolutely, by market,” Davis said of Vegas during an interview last month. “I think each of our markets are beginning to get smarter about understanding where are the growth opportunities for them, and building these pipelines of talent from youth and ensuring that at every rung of that pipeline, there’s an open, accessible opportunity – whether it be for girls, whether it be for people of colour, broken by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation – that we create an environment where people just win.”
Among its hires, Seattle has brought in people like Dani Chu, hand-picked straight out of Simon Fraser University; siblings Kyle Boyd (youth and community development/training director) and Kendall Boyd-Tyson (now VP of strategy and analytics); and analytics guru Namita Nandakumar, a star in the analytics world who thrived with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I think it’s about time that we make that a priority in this business – and I’m speaking about the sports business overall,” Leiweke said of diversity. “We have made it a priority here and in some ways it’s not the path of least resistance. When you think about a key executive and you think about people you’ve worked with, so often you’re thinking about men. So it takes a little bit of a double clutch to say, ‘Hey, maybe they don’t have to have 10 or 20 years of experience.’ Maybe there are some leaps of faith. I’m really proud with the progress we’re making. It’s still a work in progress, but I can cite examples of just phenomenal people that have come on our team who represent diversity and who are going to serve us well going forward.”
The hiring of USA Hockey legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato as a pro scout shed even more light on the club’s way of thinking. While we had already seen women start to break into scouting departments across the NHL — Noelle Needham was hired as an amateur scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018 — Granato was the first woman to hold her position.
“I think that people will take note, and I think that we will see some change, and I think it’ll just be really positive,” Granato told Simpson. “Whatever background you are, it doesn’t matter. I think that’ll happen. I think the fact that Seattle’s doing it like this, I think you’ll for sure see more of it.”
That’s already begun to happen around the hockey world. Since Granato’s hiring, Blake Bolden has joined the Los Angeles Kings in a similar role. And in October, the Moose Jaw Warriors hired Olivia Howe, making her the first woman to be part of a WHL coaching staff.
“The head coach actually credited and referenced — ‘You know, I’d never thought of it before and then I was hearing about what NHL Seattle was doing and I just thought, ‘Why not?’” Mandrycky said of the hiring. “So, I think if the NHL starts this trend, it’s going to trickle down across the hockey world.”
A research-based role like Mandrycky’s in Seattle wouldn’t typically be in the spotlight – and that’s just fine with her – but she understands the importance of being in the public eye when it comes to creating change.
“I don’t really like attention, but I recognize that as these types of stories are written, if my name pops up in other stories, someone will see, ‘Oh, she’s a woman and she’s in this story about hockey,’ and then it just becomes the norm,” she said.
As Mandrycky explained, it’s not simply that NHL clubs have been averse to new ideas in the past. The issue lies in the pipeline and the traditional, hierarchy-based pools from which they’re searching.
“I think if you only pool candidates from those traditional pipelines, you’re doomed to not have diversity on staff,” she said. “And that’s not to say that those pipelines aren’t extremely valuable – those people have lots of experience that they deserve to be in consideration for all these positions. But I think they aren’t the only people that we’re placing in consideration as we think about hiring out the group.”
She pointed out that it takes a conscious effort to interrupt the traditional way of seeking candidates.
“It requires someone to be open-minded to consider that application and really try to hire the best person available,” she said. “So I think the organizations that have shown … open-mindedness to bringing women on board, I think that they should definitely be applauded in that way.”