Inside the NHL

Roasting chestnuts by an open fire, or something like that, with my wife, Amy, last weekend, we got to talking about the Kraken and their renewed commitment to winning.

This was before Monday night’s debacle against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Kraken had captured five of their past seven and had just defeated the top-flight Edmonton Oilers

Mostly, we were speaking about the Kraken’s grand opportunity to shine within this city’s sports marketplace given the sudden downturn of both the football Seahawks and Huskies. The Mariners, well, they haven’t made the playoffs in 20 years, and the Sounders and Storm were eliminated early from postseason play.

Now, the thing with Amy is, she’s a pretty casual sports fan. But when I mentioned the Sounders’ early playoff elimination, she stopped me. 

“I can tell you who the Sounders players are,” she said, reeling off the names of Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris, Stefan Frei and even Nouhou. “But I can’t tell you the name of a single Kraken player.”

I was a bit impressed that she knew the Sounders so well. I mean, I covered them briefly in a pinch and even wrote a book about them several years back. But we don’t exactly sit around discussing whether Brian Schmetzer made the right substitution in the 70th minute. 

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Had she perhaps read my book?

No, that wasn’t it, she assured. It’s just marketing. She follows the team’s Facebook page and has seen those players pop up over the years on television in public-service announcements and on billboards around town. They all seem like pretty nice guys who genuinely care about the city, she told me.

“If you want me to care about your team, I’ve got to know who the players are,” she told me. “It’s tough to care about the Kraken when I don’t know who any of them are.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that.

In completely random surveys of my sports obsessed pals and colleagues, most are hard-pressed to name more than a Kraken player or two, if that. Brandon Tanev is somewhat the exception, what with his flowing hair and the eye-bulging face he made taking his team headshot. Combined with his hardworking approach and unexpected goal scoring, you can see why he’d stand out.

And goalie Philipp Grubauer’s name elicits a “Gruuuuu!” reaction from the home crowd when he stops a puck, so it’s probably a matter of time before even casual fans pick up on that. Not that they could pick him out of a lineup, but it’s a start.

One acquaintance, who owns season tickets to the Kraken and other local teams, bumped into Amy and me at a weekend event, and we mentioned her not knowing the players.

“Oh, you’ve got to come to a game,” he said. “It’s completely different once you’re inside the arena.”

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Which is very true but misses the point. You have to give non-hockey-fanatic casual fans a reason to go to the arena in the first place. And judging by the empty seats I’ve increasingly seen among the sold-out 17,151 nightly attendance and the falling Kraken ticket prices on online resale exchanges, that hasn’t been quite as automatic as many expected.

Trust me, I know the Kraken have been playing only a couple of months, and some players should indeed become better known as time passes. Players have commented after recent games about sensing a bond forming with fans inside the arena, and that’s good news.

But honestly, it feels as if more could be done.

The Kraken ownership and executive team have done a phenomenal job embedding the franchise’s stylized “S” logo with its singular glowing red eye on the brain of the local citizenry. You can’t go anywhere in Seattle without seeing that logo on T-shirts, baseball caps, water bottles, BBQ grill covers, keychains, baby pacifiers and dog leashes.

But can anyone without season tickets tell you the nickname of Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak? It’s “Big Rig,” by the way, and his 6-foot-7, 255-pound frame generates some of the loudest non-goal cheers inside the arena whenever it’s deployed on an opposing player.

You get only one chance at a first impression. And the Kraken have that right now as the only remaining local pro sports team — sorry, Seahawks fans — with a chance to do anything with its current season.

My concern is that this type of player anonymity has long followed the NHL, which at times appears all too content with remaining North America’s No. 4 men’s sports circuit. The league, dating to my childhood in Canada, has been chastised forever by fans and players for not marketing its game and stars enough.

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Defenders of the NHL suggest hockey is a team-first sport, where the humility of being part of a group supersedes that of individual glory. 

But my cynical side remembers how the NHL for generations exploited this mindset to suppress player salaries. Wealthy team owners further enriched themselves while telling star players they were nothing more than replaceable widgets.

So, the “team-first” excuse doesn’t really resonate. Anyone with a smidgen of NHL knowledge predating oh, say, 2010, knows how self-serving it is.

There are plenty of interesting Kraken players, potential All-Stars even, in Jordan Eberle, Jaden Schwartz and Jared McCann. Entertaining dynamos such as Yanni Gourde. Fearless shot-blockers such as Adam Larsson. Hopefully, someday, more people will know their names.

Right now they feel undersold. It’s as if the Kraken are using the NHL’s playbook to market them, rather than their innovative approach that set merchandising sales records when the team’s logo was introduced.

But this isn’t the same as the Vegas Golden Knights four years ago. That expansion team launched in a market devoid of additional major sports competition and was an instant draw for winning right away.

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The Kraken have far more local sports competition. And if the NBA returns, they’ll have more still. They’ve already shown they aren’t going to win enough right away to be an automatic draw as Vegas was.

So they need to work harder. On and off the ice.

And just as the Kraken players have worked to forge an on-ice “identity” they can rally behind, those in charge of the team’s off-ice identity need to do more to capitalize on this limited opportunity in the city’s sporting spotlight.