Inside the NHL

The likelihood of vaccination requirements for all Climate Pledge Arena patrons ahead of the Kraken’s initial season appears to be nearing.

And given spiking COVID-19 case rates nationwide, requiring vaccinations might be the easiest way out for the Kraken and its fans. Though no official decision has been made, people familiar with ongoing Kraken discussions say a vaccination mandate could be far preferable to another alternative looming behind the scenes.

That would be state and county health officials restricting capacity at sports venues this fall. Yes, that’s right, there have apparently been ongoing murmurs about that, and the Kraken is on high alert. The last thing it wants is fans who waited 3½ years to see a Kraken game after making season-ticket deposits in March 2018 to suddenly find themselves shut out if Climate Pledge Arena is limited to, say, 70% capacity or lower.

Not to mention, those ticket refunds would cost the team a bundle.

None of this is surprising, given mounting hospitalizations and deaths linked to the delta variant and mostly unvaccinated populations. But it’s still a jolt, given the Kraken is less than a month from training camp and more than $1 billion has been spent readying the arena for an Oct. 23 opener against the Vancouver Canucks.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

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Was this avoidable? Probably. But with barely half the country vaccinated against COVID-19 and governors of states such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee opposing mask mandates in schools, the potential for deadly spread is now the greatest in months, and tough decisions likely will be forthcoming.

So, faced with imposed partial capacity or preemptively mandating that fans follow established medical advice for the greater public good, it isn’t difficult to figure out how the Kraken would lean. This is already a franchise doing more than the average team when it comes to promoting environmental causes, hiring women and people of color and taking stances on social issues that sometimes rile up a specific, vocal segment of the populace.

Yes, the Kraken is aware there could be backlash over vaccines, as somehow an infringement upon freedoms. But there’s an old legal saying — perhaps spawned by a 1970s NHL player tired of being beat up on by Philadelphia’s “Broad Street Bullies” teams: “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.” 

OK, so it was probably Oliver Wendell Holmes, Abraham Lincoln or John Stuart Mill who said it, and none played hockey. Suffice to say, the Kraken hasn’t shied away from blowback on a host of things — including its choice for the team’s name — and it’s unlikely to be swayed by anti-vax rhetoric during a public-health crisis.

Especially if the alternative is turning away ticket-holding fans because of new government capacity restrictions.

Sure, there are other local sports that would also likely be impacted. But the Kraken plays indoors and — like the Storm — could be hit harder by imposed fan restrictions than the Mariners, Seahawks or Sounders.

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The NHL already has been hit harder for two seasons by COVID-19 than arguably any other major professional sports league.

It lacks the television revenue of other major leagues and relies heavily on fan attendance bridging that gap. It’s also the only league that revamped its entire format and 2020-21 schedule due to a Canada’s border closure and more-stringent COVID-19 rules in that country impacting seven of 31 teams.

Now it’s also the only league grappling with unvaccinated players likely not being allowed across the border to play nightly games against multiple Canadian clubs.

Small wonder the NHL reportedly issued directives to teams and the players’ association that all players, coaches and hockey personnel be fully vaccinated. Compliance among Kraken players, I’m told, is nearly 100% and probably will hit that by training camp. 

By all accounts, players leaguewide were near 85% vaccine compliance before the NHL edict. Given threatened hassles for holdouts, including loss of salary for being unavailable to play in Canada, it’s assumed almost all will get shots by camp.

But fans are different. The NHL is leaving fan vaccination requirements up to teams, and the Winnipeg Jets are the only club mandating it thus far. The Jets, who also mandated mask usage by fans, said season-ticket holders made clear both steps were preferred.

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And that’s only fair. If millions have done their part to vaccinate and protect themselves and fellow citizens, why force them to worry whether the person next to them at games took the selfish, riskier approach?

I asked NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly by email about any differences in law between the U.S. and Canada that might prevent the league from acting more broadly.

“Laws are different in all of our jurisdictions,” Daly replied.

Indeed, some parts of the country could prove tougher than others. But the Anschutz Entertainment Group and Climate Pledge Arena partner Live Nation just announced vaccine mandates or a negative COVID-19 test to attend concerts at all affiliated venues nationwide.

The Eagles have a Nov. 5 date at Climate Pledge for vaccinated patrons only, as per the band’s request. Vaccines are also mandatory for front-office staffs with the Kraken, its Oak View Group development partner and the arena.

The Kraken has said it’s awaiting guidance from local health authorities, knowing fans would need a month to get both shots and have them take effect. That leaves about five weeks to finalize any vaccination policy.

For now, just like the county and state, the Kraken is waiting and watching. The team is aware of declining COVID-19 case rates in Europe this month following a lethal summer surge. There’s some hope that, if vaccinations increase nationwide and more people take precautions, a similar decline might happen here.

But make no mistake. Things today are headed in the wrong direction. And the Kraken, which already saw mountains moved to get its arena built during a pandemic, seems open to imposing whatever’s needed to get as many fans as possible into that venue.