Few people on the planet can claim to have covered the NHL arena openings of the Kraken and the Montreal Canadiens, a pair of teams that met this week.

But attending the Kraken’s home and Climate Pledge Arena opener last Saturday revived memories of covering the March 16, 1996 debut of the Molson Centre in Montreal — now known as Bell Centre — for a story appearing in The Gazette newspaper. What’s most striking about the quarter-century gap between venues is how they reflect changing approaches toward arena priorities.

At first glance, there are similarities starting with both being all privately financed. 

Canadiens owner Molson Companies Ltd., spent $230 million in Canadian dollars — roughly $170 million U.S. back then and equivalent to about $402 million today. The Oak View Group went with a more lavish $1.15 billion for Climate Pledge Arena, driven up by add-ons, rising materials fees and maintaining the venue’s roof.

Another similarity was both venues were replacing a longstanding major sports arena, though there were significant differences between the Montreal Forum and KeyArena that likely contributed to first impressions of what replaced them. 

The hallowed Forum, a few blocks from the Bell Centre, was a hockey shrine built in 1924 with terrific sight lines and a place most fans still enjoyed in 1996 despite a lack of modernized luxury suites. The Kraken’s new home replaced KeyArena, built in 1962 and increasingly detested because of deteriorating conditions even after a $100 million publicly financed makeover in the mid-1990s. 


“It feels like KeyArena but a little different,” said James Pflerger, 28, a Queen Anne resident seated in Section 213 of Climate Pledge’s highest level just inside the blue line for Thursday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild. “The seats are very comfortable, and you can see everything very well.”

And that reflects a fundamental difference between how the two projects went about allocating space.

Montreal’s building opened during the mid-1990s trend of constructing largely monolithic NHL venues that replaced smaller, more character-driven ones. The main calling card of the newer arenas was cramming more seats and luxury suites into the arena bowl to maximize profits. 

The Forum, built in 1924, had a seating capacity of 17,959, whereas the Bell Centre’s was 21,332. 

And it was evident stepping into the Bell Centre in 1996 just where sacrifices were made to fit those extra seats. The seat grading, critical to maintaining good sight lines for Forum fans, had been made less steep to expand the bowl,

Those already close to the action in the more expensive, lower bowl seemed to love the softer cushioned seats.


“It’s fantastic; everybody who is here is really lucky,” a fan named Alain Brisson in the arena’s lowest section told us in 1996. His 13-year-old son, Jean Sebastien, added: “It’s exciting. The lighting and the sound is better than at the Forum.”

But as we moved higher up the sections, griping increased.

“I’m disappointed, honestly,” a fan named Jean-Luc Cote, perched in a corner upper-deck section, said. “I thought I was going to be closer to the action.”

At Climate Pledge, though, the arena’s footprint has doubled in size, the overhaul dedicated much of that added space to concourses and left the bowl at a 17,151-seat capacity more reflective of older-style NHL venues

A report by the AECOM architectural firm in 2014 suggested repurposing KeyArena for major sports using steeply graded grandstands like at older NHL arenas. The final Climate Pledge design by the Populous firm is far more lavish than the basic model envisioned by AECOM, but the steepness idea was retained — resulting in a bowl with solid sight lines throughout and concourse spaces where fans roam freely.

Kraken fan and Leschi resident Ian Andreen, 28, who moved here from Los Angeles in 2005 after being a longtime Kings fan, also had upper-level seats for Thursday night’s game. Andreen said the entire experience exceeded expectations, especially when he could walk into the arena at street level and already be at his seating section — given the majority of the bowl is underground.

“I really, really love that the nosebleeds are right here when you walk in,” he said. “Other arenas, there’s like a thing when you go in and have to go up an escalator to your seats. It’s like a hierarchy or something. Over here, you just come in and your seats are right there.”


His girlfriend, Meaghan Murphy, 25, said she was enjoying hanging out in the spacious concourse between periods, admiring a view of the Alaska Airlines Atrium with its glass walls and ceiling.

“It feels like an aquarium,” Murphy said. “Or a real cool new convention center.”

Those spacious concourses contrast sharply with the Bell Centre’s opening night — concourses that seemed too narrow, as if afterthoughts to the massive arena bowl. Line spillovers from concessions stands overflowed into passageways and blocked the ability of fans to flow freely.

Climate Pledge lines have been reduced by Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology at four concessions stores. At Thursday’s game, customers flowed quickly in and out of locations with limited disruption.

A few entryways were cluttered with fans showing ID for liquor purchases. In some cases, fans tried walking out with four or five cans of beer, only to be informed of a two-drink limit.  

At a Starbucks store, Scott Gehlhausen, 28, of Seattle had purchased two cans of beer using the cashierless tech.


“I did the thing in two seconds; it was fantastic,” he said.

Kraken chief operating officer Victor de Bonis wandered the concourses Thursday to study how fans moved about.

“The Amazon technology, it’s been a game-changer,” he said. “People have figured it out and can get stuff in 12 seconds.”

De Bonis held a similar position with the Vancouver Canucks until 2017 and said he was used to arena patrons “shuffling” from place to place because they were bumping up against other fans in front of them.

“The lines just haven’t been there the way you’re used to seeing them in arenas,” he said. “The concourses, there just aren’t wall to wall people that are moving around.”

Still, the team has already made changes since opening night. Much of it has been with staffing and line control at more traditional concessions stands without the Amazon tech.


Also, the Kraken has taken flak over its $16 prices for a 16-ounce can of beer — an indication the team is no different from the Canadiens and other teams in wanting to profit off its arena. The Kraken made some concessions after opening night, dropping beer prices by $1 and lowering bottles of water from $7 to $5. But there are few bargains to be found.

Another ongoing issue being worked on with staffers: Ensuring fans respect hockey etiquette by waiting until a play stoppage to leave their seats or return to them.

For now, the arena’s basics are functioning as the team expected. One constant lament from skeptics of a KeyArena rebuild was the bowl size wouldn’t be big enough to attract major pro leagues. It certainly is nothing like the Bell Centre — still the NHL’s biggest for capacity — was heralding a quarter century ago.

But one week in to Climate Pledge’s existence, none of the fans actually using the building seems to care much.