32 Thoughts: Seattle’s NHL arrival comes at the perfect time

Seattle Kraken's Vince Dunn (29) celebrates his first goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period of a pre-season NHL hockey game. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

• Can Senators, Brady Tkachuk get a new contract done?
• What Mika Zibanejad signing means to Rangers’ pursuit of Jack Eichel
• Pre-season predictions

The back half of the NHL’s Opening Night doubleheader: Seattle at Vegas. Imagine writing that sentence five years ago. People would think you were nuts.

I thought it then, and I think it even more now, that the 2017 Nashville-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Final changed the NHL. People who weren’t there wanted to be there. The massive street parties at Predator home games, the concerts, the atmosphere — it smacked us right between the eyes. We had to do a better job embracing the different ways markets identify with hockey.

Vegas wisely made the city’s entertainment culture part of the in-arena spectacle. The Golden Knights charged to the Stanley Cup Final, established themselves as a franchise to be reckoned with, and became a powerful revenue generator. During their inaugural season, attendance for their road games was three-to-four per cent higher than for other opponents.

Expansion teams are supposed to weakly cower in the corner, pushed around for years by their established brethren. From the owner on down, Vegas refused that narrative. Seattle has the same opportunity. As we crawl out of the pandemic and strive for pre-COVID revenues, Seattle is critical to that goal. The Kraken are expected to be another high-level revenue club, a jolt of financial electricity.

“We have people here who know and love the game,” Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said last weekend. “Delivery of a very significant market, both in its size and in its influence. We have Fortune 500 companies based here. They’re going to see hockey at its best in the most beautiful arena in the land. That’s a pretty cool development for the NHL.”

“It’s the last area of the North American footprint that needed to be filled,” said NHL Executive Vice-President of Marketing Brian Jennings. “Everything they’ve done on this journey has been extraordinary.”

It’s one thing to get a team. From there, you must build community loyalty — during a worldwide health crisis.

“Being a good communicator is being a good listener,” Leiweke says. “When I arrived and heard this rumbling of Kraken, I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ And I talked to more than one person who said, ‘Anything but the Kraken.’ But it was after listening to the fans and hearing what they thought it was, the passion they had around it…they led us right to the answer.”

It wasn’t only about the name, it was also about how a Kraken was supposed to look.

“They told us, ‘Don’t show it in an explicit way,’” Leiweke said. “It’s not a cartoon character. It kind of lives in the theatre of our minds. At the end of the day, this is really a story about the fans. Through a global pandemic, they never once faltered.”

“It’s our biggest jersey launch ever,” Jennings said. “We have not seen this level of demand out of the gate…and I don’t see any indication that it’s slowing down.”

“I think it’s one of the best-looking jerseys in the league,” goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “We’re all super-proud to be part of this.”

Seattle traffic is notoriously terrible, so the Kraken made a deal with the city’s monorail that ticketholders get a ride free to home games. An executive on another NHL team explained how such goodwill and a great off-ice start grows your organization. You don’t want to gouge your fans, but you want to charge a premium. Once you set your initial price, it creates an expectation of what it costs to go to a game in your market. Any significant move meets pushback, so you need to get it right. Vegas and Seattle are on the NHL’s higher end, but the strong early relationship makes it work.

The Kraken believe fans will be thrilled to watch their team in a near-total remodelling of the now-departed NBA SuperSonics’ arena, originally opened in 1962. (The home debut is Oct. 23 against Vancouver.) Only the roof remains; it was suspended above construction on the rest of the building.

“Fans have yet to really lay eyes on it and there is even a small part of this market that still thinks it’s a renovation,” Leiweke laughs. “Renderings a lot of times are just a bit better than reality, and this is a flip. The rendering did not do justice to how the arena feels.”

Even though Amazon is the naming-rights holder, its moniker does not grace the facility. Climate Pledge Arena is billed as the first zero-carbon arena in the world — which struck a chord in the environmentally-conscious region. If the buzzword in Vegas was “entertainment,” in Seattle it is “sustainability.” The team and league heard it often. The organization also overcame years of local political gridlock to get it built, which is not a small accomplishment.

Leiweke’s brother Tim, CEO of Oak View Group, spearheads the renovation.

“We got awful lucky on our partners, on our city and the people who are leading this every day,” he said. “We took a historic roof, and floated it — literally floated it — in air for two years. Took a 350,000 square foot hole and made it a million square foot hole. Our commitment to sustainability and being carbon-neutral. You’ll see it everywhere in the building, including our ‘living wall.’ The air circulation system, and the air filterization system are highly sophisticated. Thinking outside the box on the premium seating, so that not only does the NHL work here but we’re prepared for the NBA should they choose to come.”

(Oak View also is building UBS Arena, new home of the New York Islanders. “Who do I cheer for when the Islanders play the Kraken?” Tim says. “It’s simple. Whoever has the puck. We’re just as proud of UBS, and that comes next.”)

Monday night, Seattle released its official “Kraken + Climate Pledge Arena” app available on both the Apple and Google stores. It’s the first in the NHL developed entirely in-house. The goal is to streamline the entire experience, from the moment you leave your home to your return. There will be four stores where cameras in the ceiling and sensors on the shelves detect what a fan picks up (and returns), charging them once they leave. No checkout required.

As arenas launch the next wave of amenities — social areas where fans can mingle while watching the games, betting lounges, no-touch everything — other clubs will be closely monitoring how these technologies perform.

“Cashless was already trending, now COVID has put it on jet fuel,” Jennings said. “Nobody wants to carry cash, nobody wants to exchange, nobody wants to shake a hand, they just want to grab and go. It’s a glimpse into the future of what everybody expects, right? We live in an age of personalization and customization. This younger generation clearly expects it. If I’m going to spend my hard-earned money, I expect that to be a superior experience. If somebody could tell you, ‘By doing this and by doing that you could cut down any waiting line,’” you’re going to do it.

Starting Tuesday night, the focus shifts on-ice. The Pacific Division is wide-open, with Vegas the favourite and a whole lot of, “I’m not sure about this.” There’s opportunity for the Kraken.

“You look at (Marc-Andre Fleury), what he did in Vegas,” Grubauer said. “I’m trying to be that pillar for this team.”

“Obviously, you’re going to be compared to Vegas and how they did, but we’re trying to build our own story in Seattle,” said Jordan Eberle. “The ownership group, the amount of money and the commitment, the details in the building, the practice facility. You see the Kraken gear around the city.”

“It’s going to be a hot spot for guys.”

Home game number two is Oct. 26 against Montreal.

“It’s 102 years since the Canadiens were last in Seattle,” Tod Leiweke says. “There is a heck of a story about the Metropolitans, the suspension of those finals, the only unfinished Stanley Cup — due to the influenza and a player passing away. It is a poignant story that deserves to be told, and we’re going to try and tell it. There will be people who come to the game that don’t know this story. I hope by that second game we are shined up as storytellers, because there is a lot of stuff to share.”

“We’re not at the end here. We’re at the beginning. We’re not finishing, we’re just starting. A whole other set of pressures replaces the pressures of launch and opening the building. Those pressures include a competitive team, putting a great show on in the arena, to the pledges we made about making a difference in the community. There will be absolute joy in that building. I’m looking forward to that moment.”

32 THOUGHTS

1. Seattle had five players on its COVID list on MondayJoonas Donskoi, Calle Jarnkrok, Marcus Johansson, Jared McCann and Jamie Oleksiak. Nothing is a better reminder of the uncertainty we still face, which leads to a major early-season storyline: attendance. All arenas but Vancouver’s are open to full capacity. As one executive said last week, “We’ve sold tickets, but aren’t sure how our fans feel about being in a full building. We see some uncertainty.” How will that play out in Ottawa and Toronto, which didn’t have complete clearance until last Friday? What about Calgary and Edmonton, where the health system is buckling under a COVID surge? There are teams who know their attendance will be down due to poor performance, and some who feel very confident. Gate receipts matter, so this will be a closely-watched phenomenon.

2. That’s a big “W” for the Canadiens to get Nick Suzuki extended. After the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet, they realized this is no time to screw around and got their number one centre signed long-term. An executive from another team said from what he heard, it was one of calmest negotiations in recent memory (Dave Gagner and Jeff Jackson rep Suzuki). There are always intense conversations, but never any danger of going off the rails.

3. So, the biggest off-ice spotlight is on Ottawa and Brady Tkachuk. I try to avoid rhetoric, especially when it comes to contract negotiations. The true pressure point, however, is now. If the team and agents get it done in the next 24-48 hours, everyone smiles and moves on. If not, there’s a real problem. This can always change with one phone call, but as I woke up Tuesday morning, word was the Senators are still fixated on seven or eight years while Tkachuk wants a bridge. If I owned Ottawa, I’d bet on this group of young players. In three years, Tkachuk has gone from not wanting to be drafted there to being very happy to play there. He likes DJ Smith and likes his teammates. The core has a bright future. Sometimes you have to bet on yourself. If Tkachuk won’t budge, this is one of those times. The other thing is, Ottawa is trying to build back its ticket base. We’re not sure in Ontario how fans are going to feel about going. Don’t give them another reason to stay home. “Ah, Tkachuk isn’t signed yet, I’m not sure about going.” As an old baseball coach used to say: don’t run yourself into an out. The Senators need a strong start, on and off the ice.

4. I was surprised Ottawa didn’t make a claim on Adam Brooks. They’ve looked around at centres, but Shane Pinto’s earned an opportunity with an excellent camp.

5. The Rangers sent Vitali Kravtsov to AHL Hartford. According to multiple sources, his agent has permission to talk to other teams about a trade. Always depends on ability to make a deal, but there’s definitely interest.

6. For both Marc-Andre Fleury and Vegas, it’s time to move on.

7. Nick Kypreos reported Tuesday morning that the NHL “is leaning” towards suspending Evander Kane under Section 18A of the Standard Player’s Contract. That’s “Commissioner Discipline for Off-Ice Conduct.” It empowers Gary Bettman to fine, suspend, or cancel the contract of any player found in violation. (There is an appeal process.) As previously reported, I don’t think Kane’s contract was in danger of being terminated.

8. One contract that changed things in the NHL’s executive world: Chris Drury’s. When the Rangers hired him as President & GM, he signed a contract believed to be in the mid-$4M range. I don’t have any problem with that; you’re worth what you negotiate and what someone is willing to pay you. It leap-frogged him above many of his peers, including Montreal’s Marc Bergevin, who just went to the Stanley Cup Final. I’m not saying Bergevin is asking for $4.5M, but I do think it raised the bar. I’ve heard one argument that Drury carries the title of President, while many of his peers don’t, but, whatever the case, it’s a factor in the lack of an extension in Montreal.

9. Two Twitter users graciously allowed me to share Direct Messages sent in the aftermath of Carey Price’s admittance to the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. (They asked their names not be included.) “As an average dude, happily married and great father of two, I am encouraged by Carey to seek help for things I struggle with that nobody knows about. On the surface, I do everything right in life, especially for my family’s sake. This is still true. But I’m afraid to admit to the ones I love that I suffer in deep darkness when nobody is watching. If not for anything, and if it is at all possible, I would like for that man to know his courage has affected my life tonight to take similar steps.” And: “As a first-responder with PTSD, seeing someone like Price seeking help, helps me at least feel less stigma about being away from work…Wish I could say thanks to him, and wish him well!” Jonathan Drouin and Robin Lehner have done a lot of important work on mental health awareness. Price takes it to another level. He’s an Olympic Gold Medallist, a Hart Trophy winner and coming off an incredible playoff run. But I believe there’s another layer to this, because Price presents as a stoic. What we see publicly is a person who, in the firestorm of the Canadiens’ passionate fanbase, coolly sets a stable backbone when everything burns around him. When he is on, fans believe everything is going to be fine. So, when the announcement comes that he’s seeking help, it connects to people at a deeper emotional level. I was encouraged to hear that Bergevin is optimistic Price and family will benefit from this path. That’s the most important thing.

10. New Jersey opens Friday at home against Chicago. There is hope MacKenzie Blackwood will consider getting his vaccination beforehand. The goalie, the team’s lone unvaccinated player, said Sunday, “I’m probably going to be getting the shot in the next couple of weeks.” There was one previous appointment set up in September, but he wasn’t ready to do it when the date hit. New Jersey, I think, has a real chance to surprise if his status is solidified.

11. Bettman said Tuesday on ESPN Radio’s Keyshawn Johnson, Max Kellerman and Jay Williams morning show that “only four players” on NHL Opening Day rosters are not vaccinated.

12. Several people who know Mika Zibanejad said he would be a much more effective player if his contract status was settled before the season. Some guys are comfortable with uncertainty, some aren’t. So, a win for both him and the Rangers that it’s done. I know sports fans are ageist, but if you’re going to bet on someone, best it be the guy you know. Henrik Lundqvist was almost 32 when they extended him seven years. Turned out pretty well.

13. Does re-signing Zibanejad take the Rangers out of acquiring Jack Eichel? It definitely takes them out of it if someone (Buffalo or a third party) isn’t willing to retain. New York can’t do it at $10M.

14. Everyone’s being very careful about this, but word is that there are four or five teams indicating comfort with Eichel’s preferred disc replacement. There are legitimate attempts to find a solution, but it’s still a challenge. This is a hard deal to make if you’re giving up top picks/prospects, and have to wait through the surgery. The good news is that I think everyone realizes it is time to sort this out.

15. Philadelphia told Travis Konecny at the end of last season that they easily could have traded him. There were a lot of interested teams calling. But they didn’t want to do it, because they feel he’s too important, too good to give up on. Konecny rewarded that faith by showing up fit, hungry and ready to go. Looking forward to his season.

16. Another player I’m watching: Chicago’s Dylan Strome. Head coach Jeremy Colliton is talking about him as a fourth-liner, and that’s not a place he will thrive. With Jonathan Toews back and the organization heavily invested in Kirby Dach, there’s not much room for Strome. Other teams previously showed interest, and the Blackhawks are looking around. Chicago also made a big gamble on Henrik Borgstrom. Not only did they trade for him, but they took Brett Connolly’s $7M salary (over two years), which is now at AHL Rockford. Borgstrom’s a real talent and he’s been through a lot. Hope it works out for him.

17. Don’t think it is going to matter because Toronto likes the player, but Kirill Semyonov does have a European assignment clause in his contract if he’s not in the NHL at some point in 2021-22.

18. No one likes Hall & Oates more than me. But I can’t believe the Maple Leafs didn’t change their goal song.

19. Waiver non-claims that surprised me: Kale Clague (Los Angeles), Cale Fleury (Seattle), Alexander Volkov (Anaheim). I think there was one team (possibly Philadelphia) that looked at Montreal’s Michael Pezzetta. The Flyers went for Vegas’s Patrick Brown.

20. Kraken captain Mark Giordano: deadline acquisition piece or extension candidate? Would anyone be surprised if it is the latter?

21. A little surprised Bobby Ryan and Detroit didn’t work out a contract, but Lucas Raymond sure earned his spot. Will Ryan be re-visited if the Red Wings need to add a veteran in the next few weeks? Not many places he’d rather go.

22. How many 37-year-olds (in December) get a contract after missing a full season? Very impressive by Brian Boyle, once again beating the odds.

23. Which is the weirder lineup — Pittsburgh without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or Washington without Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin? I’d probably say the Capitals, because, unfortunately, the Penguins’ Hall-of-Fame duo have battled injuries throughout their magnificent careers. But I was looking at some of their practice lines and thinking I’m not going to like it when they’re all retired, sitting in rocking chairs, smoking cigars, sipping Scotch, laughing at how much they used to hate each other. Colby Armstrong has a sit-down with Crosby and Ovechkin that will air Tuesday night as part of our Opening Night coverage. I’m looking forward to it, and it’s major credit to Colby that they agreed to it.

24. There was a COVID breakout among scouts who attended the USHL Fall Classic Sept. 23-27 in Pittsburgh. Since then, the NHL has warned scouts there is a “zero tolerance policy with respect to the protocols in all partner leagues being respected and followed.” Those leagues are being asked to make it known if anyone ignores protocols, with potential punishment of losing their ability to attend games — at the very least.

25. Alaska is Kraken territory. The organization played a significant part in helping NCAA Alaska-Anchorage re-instate its disbanded hockey program for 2022-23. You may remember the outdoor games last season at Lake Tahoe. A Mystery, Alaska type of event with the Kraken as hosts makes a lot of sense.

26. Injuries are going to happen in the pre-season. That’s hockey. But watching the likes of Matt Boldy, Quinton Byfield and Ilya Mikheyev go down long-term; Zack Kassian suffering a scary-looking concussion in a meaningless fight; Ryan Reaves luckily escape serious injury; and Alexander Ovechkin flirt with franchise-altering/Gretzky-chasing disaster — there are too many pre-season games. I get that they make money. I understand teams want to give AHLers and prospects an opportunity. But (at least) six games are not worth the risk. If you cut to four, you also eliminate one team complaining to the league about another not scheduling enough of them.

27. Western Conference Playoff teams: Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Winnipeg (Central); Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Vegas (Pacific). Winnipeg is my pick as best Canadian team.

28. You know what I liked most about the Jets? No noise. The last few off-seasons, it seemed like there was always something. This year was adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. Quiet. Simple. That’s good for them.

29. Eastern Conference Playoff teams: Carolina, Islanders, and I’m torn between Philadelphia, Rangers & Washington (Metropolitan); Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Toronto (Atlantic).

30. Awards: Nathan MacKinnon (Hart); Cale Makar (Norris); Spencer Knight (Calder); Jacob Markstrom (Vezina).

31. I’m picking Colorado to win the Stanley Cup until they actually do it.

32. Nice to hear that some of you are creating your own “In-Season Stanley Cup” pools. (Podcast explainer here.) It will drive you bananas in a fun way. Thank you to the Grade 4/5 math class at Gladys Speers Public School in Oakville, ON for offering to keep track of the standings as David Amber, Caroline Cameron, Jeff Marek and I chase in-season supremacy. One question I wanted to clear: All-Star, Christmas and Olympic breaks do not count. The totals are locked-in before those begin, and resume on the first day back. Regular days off during the schedule do count. So if a team “has the Cup” with, say, a four-day break while everyone else is playing, that’s a bonus. You don’t get credit for any game day unless you win. Another Twitter follower said he and his friends modified it to one point for winning the Cup and one for defending it. Choose what you like. Two prizes: one for most days your teams have the Cup, one for who finishes with it. Marek (picks one and eight in our snake draft): Tampa Bay, Carolina, Detroit, Edmonton, Minnesota, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Arizona. Amber (two and seven): Colorado, Vancouver, Florida, Washington, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Buffalo. Caroline (three and six): Vegas, Rangers, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Anaheim. Myself (four and five): Islanders, Winnipeg, Dallas, Boston, Calgary, New Jersey, Nashville, San Jose.

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