Minutes before faceoff at Climate Pledge Arena and it is movie-theatre dark inside. The story of ancient Scandinavian mariners who feared a mythical, octopus-like sea monster known as the Kraken is being told on the massive screen hovering over centre ice.
The video has all the fury, drama and Hollywood sound quality of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
When it ends, the NHL’s newest franchise – the one that has taken its name from the fabled sea serpent – takes to the ice amid a raucous reception from more than 17,000 fans, many of whom have travelled from Canada to see the game’s greatest player – Connor McDavid.
There are Edmonton Oiler jerseys everywhere. The Canadian national anthem is sung enthusiastically by many in the afternoon crowd. It’s not an environment that you would typically associate with a team in only its second year in the league. But then, neither are Seattle’s results ones you typically associate with an expansion franchise.
By game’s end, the Kraken will find themselves on the wrong end of the score in a game they desperately needed to win. They are in a dog fight for a playoff spot, the Oilers being one of the teams just above them in that race. The Kraken’s fate could well be determined in the last week of the season.
Above the ice, in the owner’s suite, the team president, chief executive officer and minority owner, Tod Leiweke, lives and dies with every shift. On this day, he’s joined by friend and diehard Kraken fan Al Michaels, the famed U.S. sports broadcaster. On occasion, the suite will play host to majority owner David Bonderman, the billionaire U.S. businessman, and Bruckheimer, the Hollywood movie mogul who also has an ownership stake.
The story of the Kraken is really a study in overcoming challenges, some extraordinary, starting with the arena itself. It was built to be the Washington State Pavilion for the 1962 World’s Fair – right next door to the iconic Space Needle – with its trademark hyperbolic-parabolic roofline. (It’s modelled on an Indigenous rain hat). It later became known as KeyArena, home to the Seattle SuperSonics. But its size and dimension always limited the ambitions of its NBA occupants, especially when large corporate suites became essential elements of a franchise’s bottom line.
The Sonics ended up leaving Seattle in 2008, which was a shiv to the soul of the city.
No one could seem to find a way to reimagine the arena in a way that could make it work as a home to either an NBA or NHL team – that is until Tim Leiweke came along. After his time as the president of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment ended, Leiweke got into the business of building arenas. Long story short: he found an architect who conceived of a way to put a nearly 20,000-tonne roof on stilts to allow workers to completely gut the stadium and sink the floor another five metres into the ground.
Leiweke sold the NHL on the idea of a team in Seattle, then Bonderman and Bruckheimer. Then he made perhaps the most important move of all: convincing his brother, Tod, one of the top sports executives in the world, to come and make it all work. He agreed.
Now Tod Leiweke sits in an office on the second floor of the team’s sparkling new practice complex 10 minutes from downtown talking about the day-to-day rhythm of the job he’s taken on: after a win everyone feels great. After a loss, the challenge of building a franchise from scratch can often seem insurmountable.
“The key to all this is trying to maintain perspective,” Leiweke tells me. “That’s the challenge in this business: having the discipline to keep perspective and not get dragged down by the moment-by-moment nature of social media. We’ve done some incredible things here in a short amount of time and we’re really only getting started.”
This is true. Once upon a time, it was accepted that expansion franchises could expect to be cellar dwellers for years before becoming competitive. But then along came the Vegas Golden Knights, who upended that well-established narrative by reaching the Stanley Cup final in their inaugural season. That was always going to be a tough act for the next expansion team to follow.
The rest of the league would be ready.
The Kraken lived up to old stereotypes and won only 27 games in 2021-22 to finish last in the Pacific division. But with some crafty off-season moves, GM Ron Francis greatly improved the team, which now is eyeing at least a wild-card spot if it can return to the form it exhibited in the first half of the season.
The team’s improved play has had a discernible impact on the franchise.
“I think our players are now proud to pull that jersey on,” Leiweke said. “I think when we first gathered the players [in the first year] it was hard. Many were on one-year contracts. They rented furniture, not just apartments. Now things have settled down. Players pull the jersey on like it’s their team.”
The fan base has responded, too, making Kraken jerseys among the top sellers in the league. The team’s crest, with a stylized S, pays tribute to the first U.S. hockey team to hoist the Stanley Cup – the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917. The lettering emulates the traditional hand carving of historic vessels that plied the waters of Puget Sound. There is a serpent’s tentacle that winds its way through. Its red eye was the inspiration of Bonderman.
Martin Jones, the long-time goalie for the San Jose Sharks who played in Philadelphia last year, signed with the Kraken as a backup this season. Jones grew up three hours away in Vancouver, and can remember visiting the city in the summers to watch major-league baseball’s Mariners.
“I always thought Seattle was very similar to Vancouver,” Jones tells me after practice one day. “There is a lot of natural beauty in both places, a love for the outdoors and a love for sports. Seattle is a great sports town for sure.”
He wasn’t sure what kind of team the Kraken would have to start the season, and concedes players felt no one expected them to do much after their highly disappointing inaugural campaign. “I think we kind of relished that a little bit,” Jones says. “It’s not that we wanted to prove anything per se but maybe we have played with a bit of a chip on our shoulder as a result.”
In many ways, this is the first really “normal” season that the Kraken have been able to enjoy, with the pandemic now very much an afterthought with most people. Trying to build a team during the pandemic was a trial in itself. It made taking the sport into what was not a super-rich hockey market that much more difficult. Yes, there had been a WHL team in Seattle for years and that Stanley Cup way back. But professional hockey in this city was a faded memory.
“It has not been a project for the faint of heart, that’s for sure,” Leiweke says.
Making the playoffs would be an enormous bonus for a franchise in an extremely competitive sports market. The NFL’s Seattle Seahawks are the top dogs, followed closely by the baseball Mariners, with the University of Washington Huskies football team, the MLS’s Seattle Sounders and WNBA Seattle Storm basketball team also competing for the market’s attention.
Kraken TV ratings haven’t been great, about a one rating. But Leiweke isn’t too concerned. It’s halfway through the team’s second season. Get back to him in five years, he says. Or 10. It will tell a different story, he’s convinced.
There are few sports executives in America with the breadth of experience Leiweke has. He knows the NHL, having previously worked in senior leadership positions with the Canucks, Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s worked at NFL head office and before that, with the Seahawks. He was part of the leadership group that developed traditions with the city’s new football stadium, which was opened in 2002 by then-club owner Paul Allen.
Among the rituals the Seahawks started is the raising of the 12th Man flag, honouring the franchise’s loyal fans. This happens just before the start of the game, with the person raising the flag most often being a well-known Seattle athlete or celebrity. Leiweke remembers when the flag was first raised. There was a smattering of applause. Two years later, in 2005, the team was in the NFC championship and Paul Allen raised the flag with tears streaming down his face as Seahawk fans went wild.
“That is what I want to build here,” Leiweke says about the Kraken. “I want us to establish that kind of connection with our fan base. But it’s going to take time. It’s going to be brick by brick.
“It’s just not something you do by waving a magic wand.”