LAS VEGAS — When the most recent Seattle major professional hockey expansion team debuted some 106 years ago, Bernie Morris took the opening faceoff surrounded by royalty that included Frank Foyston, Jack Walker and a goalie named Hap Holmes.
And so, with apologies to whatever COVID-19-depleted Kraken group takes the ice here Tuesday night against the Vegas Golden Knights, all the angst over roster additions and line matchups entering the contest won’t amount to a hill of historical beans.
A century from now, when fans gaze back at details of the night the Kraken first carried Seattle’s NHL aspirations, nobody will care much about whether goalie Philipp Grubauer ultimately matched the Hall of Fame legacy of Holmes, or whether Jaden Schwartz or Jordan Eberle could replicate the similarly enshrined Foyston or Walker.
Yanni Gourde, Alex Wennberg or Morgan Geekie will almost certainly never score six goals in a Stanley Cup-clinching game against the Montreal Canadiens, as center Morris did in 1917, a year-plus after taking that opening faceoff for his expansion team.
The reality is, even with Kraken regulars Calle Jarnkrok, Jamie Oleksiak, Marcus Johansson, Jared McCann and Joonas Donskoi in COVID-19 protocol (and Jarnkrok out for at least the opener Tuesday), the importance of this game was never going to be about its final score or whomever wound up making the roster as a 13th forward or eighth defenseman.
No, the only story that will be told about Tuesday night for years and — the Kraken hopes — decades will be about its Seattle home city finally being part of the grand tale of an NHL much bigger than a lone squad can ever be on its own. It has been a long time coming for a Northwest burg that had the Pacific Coast Hockey Association Metropolitans until 1924, then a slew of minor pro squads and failed attempts at NHL inclusion in the mid-1970s and in 1990.
To their credit, the Kraken players seem keenly aware of the historical significance of the game and their chance to be part of it.
“We have the responsibility of trying to create a culture here,” said winger Eberle, one of four alternate captains named by the team Monday alongside captain Mark Giordano. “That’s an opportunity that really doesn’t come around too often.”
Eberle called his situation and that of his teammates as “unique” and said they can all sense what’s at stake starting Tuesday.
“I think we have a great group of guys here who want to win, who are motivated, who are excited to play in the city of Seattle,” Eberle added. “We’ve been around, seen the fan base and how excited the fan base is here. So I know we’re just eager to get things going and start creating that.”
Giordano, who at age 38 will captain his second team after doing so the previous eight seasons with the Calgary Flames, acknowledged there’s a different feel doing it for an expansion squad.
“We’re blessed to be a part of something special,” Giordano said. “Not many guys have this opportunity in their careers, obviously, with a new franchise and Game 1. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere in Vegas — it always is. I’m excited to be a part of that game.”
Giordano and other veterans will make sure the team isn’t too revved up.
“You’ve almost got to try and slow it down,” he said. “Slow the game down as much as you can for the first 10 (minutes). You don’t want to be running around out of position. You’ve got to play smart. There’s going to be pace … the excitement, the nerves are going to be there.”
And coach Dave Hakstol likely won’t mind some extra adrenaline given the uphill roster climb he has been handed. Legendary former Metropolitans coach and all-around Seattle sports icon Pete Muldoon never had to deal with losing five guys off his roster to a pandemic right before his expansion team’s early 20th century debut.
Muldoon, of course, would experience something much more serious when he and several Metropolitans came down with Spanish influenza during the 1919 Cup rematch with Montreal that ultimately forced its cancellation and ended the life of Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall.
So, although the Kraken has released almost no information on the five absent players or their conditions — they don’t necessarily need to test positive for COVID-19 to be in protocol, only be in close contact with someone who did — this is no trivial matter from a health perspective, even if the ramifications for the game lineup likely won’t be remembered from a history perspective.
Indeed, there will be additional difficult days, months and inevitably years in store for this franchise if it’s to endure.
The Metropolitans, for all of their Hall of Famers, one Cup title and three finalist appearances, didn’t make it halfway through the 1920s. Other NHL expansion teams? The Minnesota North Stars, California Golden Seals and Kansas City Scouts are gone. So are the Quebec Nordiques, Atlanta Flames, Hartford Whalers, Atlanta Thrashers and original Winnipeg Jets.
Will we still be reading about the Kraken even a half-century from now? That’s largely up to the team and building a “culture,” as Eberle put it, that extends to the ice and beyond. Community bonds aren’t formed just by showing up and announcing tickets for sale at a rebuilt arena.
And unlike the previous NHL expansion squad, the highly successful Golden Knights opponents Tuesday, the Kraken didn’t arrive as the lone major pro sports team in its market.
The Kraken players, staffers, executives and owners will need to put the effort in to secure their place in a community already possessing teams in the NFL, MLB, MLS, WNBA and Pac-12, with an NBA squad likely returning within a few years. It’s a market that saw the NBA’s Sonics leave town in 2008, and the NFL’s Seahawks and MLB’s Mariners nearly did as well before being saved by public money through subsidized stadium deals.
So, the hard work will be starting for this Kraken bunch Tuesday and will have to continue for as long as the team wishes to remain relevant. Perhaps it even culminates in a championship or two not long after this inaugural Vegas puck drop, just as it did for Seattle’s previous major pro hockey expansion squad.
And if it does, then maybe someday, decades from now, some curious hockey fan will scroll through Tuesday’s starting lineup and recognize names that do indeed stand the test of time.