LAS VEGAS — It began not with a bang, but a wince — two goals yielded by the Seattle Kraken in the first 6 minutes and 36 seconds of its NHL existence.
Yet it was hard to dampen the euphoria of this night for Seattle, drenched in the wretched excess of a Las Vegas extravaganza but with meaning far beyond the eventual 4-3 loss by the Kraken to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night.
It was the birth of a franchise, the realization of a longtime dream that at one point seemed so preposterous that to call it a long shot was to imbue credence that didn’t seem warranted.
And yet here the players were, draped in their ice-blue-and-white sweaters with the stylistic “S,” overcoming the most modern of dilemmas — a COVID-19 scare — to provide the first major professional hockey for Seattle since the Metropolitans faded away in 1924.
In Vegas, they like to call T-Mobile Arena “The Fortress,” and it seemed like the professional winter leagues had constructed a stronghold to keep Seattle out of commission.
As he contemplated the unveiling of his team, Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke marveled at the incredulity of it all. It was Leiweke who helped spearhead the drive to renovate KeyArena — originally viewed as a fool’s errand — that led to the awarding of an NHL franchise to Seattle in December 2018.
All it took was a $650 million expansion fee, a $1 billion sprucing of the arena, and the grand vision of a group of dreamers to get it all done.
“We have our partners here, and I said last night, they believed in this almost before it was believable. Four years ago, this was such an improbable thing that we take that historic roof [of KeyArena] and build a brand new arena under it,” he said.
The unveiling of the newly renovated Climate Pledge Arena will come Oct. 23 — 11 days after this ultimately disappointing debut that was invigorated by a stirring Kraken comeback to tie the score in the third period.
And it is that homecoming (home-revealing, more accurately) moment, following a five-game road trip, that Leiweke is keenly anticipating as the de facto kickoff of the Kraken era.
He calls the latest incarnation of the arena in the shadow of the Space Needle “just spectacular, beyond what I could have ever hoped for.” And he vows that it will be ready by the time fans jam the place for a Coldplay concert Oct. 22 and the inaugural home game against the Vancouver Canucks the next night.
“It’s essentially done,” he said. “It is fantastic. You know, they’re working hard. We will have it completely done by the opening. But there’s a lot of hard work between now and when we cut that ribbon. The furniture is being put in. We’re seeing it really starting to reveal its full self. And it’s beautiful.”
The spectacular pregame production Tuesday featured a freakishly realistic hologram of a Kraken rising from the ice, only to be vanquished by knights. That seemed like an accurate portent of the game, as Vegas ran out to a 3-0 lead, until the Kraken roared back with two goals in the span of 1 minute, 9 seconds in the second period, much to the delight of the sizable collection of Kraken faithful. Because if you can’t be faithful in Game 1 of existence, when can you be?
Morgan Geekie tied it with a spectacular goal with 7:58 left in regulation, only to see Vegas score the go-ahead, ultimately game-winning goal 35 seconds later, the latest in an agonizing string of anticlimactic gut punches of late in Seattle sports. The rest of the game was a furious, though ultimately, futile attempt by the Kraken to find the equalizer.
But to Leiweke, the game is only an ephemeral marker of a milestone that will live in the record books, but won’t determine the fate of the franchise. That will only be revealed over time.
“You know, I’m hoping we win tonight,” he said before the game, “but I think the big deal is not where we are tonight at the end of this game. But where are we in three years. Have we built a team that is a long-term winner? And have we done things right?
“So, you know, I’m going to try and stay calm at the game tonight. I hope we win. But the focus really has always been on building a long-term winner, and we’ll measure by where we are in three years.”
Their opponent, the Golden Knights, set the standard, perhaps unrealistic, of what a modern NHL expansion franchise can achieve by reaching the Stanley Cup Final as the league’s 31st team in its first season four years ago. Gone are the days when expansion teams are stuck with the dregs of the leagues, sentenced to years of subpar play and bottom-of-the-standing finishes. Vegas has been a legitimate title contender from the jump, and is again in Year 5.
“I think they want to probably show us that we can’t do what they did. And we want to show them the other way around,” Kraken left wing Marcus Johansson said before the game. “So it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think it’s cool thing to start the first game against Vegas. We’ve got 20 guys in there that are ready to put everything out there. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. You always wait for the first game of the year, but this feels a little extra special.”
It’s a blueprint the Kraken, the 32nd team, would love to emulate, though the rest of the NHL learned enough from the shrewd way Vegas gamed the system to make sure the Kraken was unable to replicate. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a highly competitive team in its first season. It certainly was in Game 1 of 82, though it didn’t start that way. As Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said afterward, “There were a lot of different layers to this game.”
Indeed, it was all there Tuesday to remind folks of how mesmerizing pro hockey can be, set against a backdrop of Vegas glitz: rugged hockey, amazing skill and athleticism, a stirring comeback, some funky situations (a four-on-three Seattle advantage late in the game that the Kraken couldn’t convert), the goalie being pulled at the end, and a dollop of controversy (was the go-ahead goal by Vegas’s Chandler Stephenson the result of an illegal kick with his skate? The refs said no. Kraken fans screamed yes.) Ryan Donato became an eternal trivia answer by scoring the franchise’s first goal. And even some gamesmanship, as the Knights said afterward they were motivated by the Kraken’s exuberant celebration of Geekie’s goal.
Leiweke called the game “the first step in a long journey.” And what a fun, compelling, exhilarating step it was — one that it’s easy to imagine landing with a vengeance at Climate Pledge Arena next week.