Inside the NHL
Nothing like some new walls, a staircase and a doorway to a VIP parking lot to make you dream about a life of hockey normalcy somewhere down the road.
Until, that is, you realize you’re standing someplace you have zero chance of setting foot inside once the Kraken actually do begin training next fall at its new Northgate Mall headquarters. Not that T.J. Oshie, Tyler Johnson or Braden Holtby wouldn’t want us joining them for a beer or two inside the Kraken’s spanking new players’ lounge.
But something tells me that standing on the lounge’s muddied concrete floor with the two built-in hot tubs — er, “hydrotherapy tubs’’ per official team vernacular — hidden under protective wood planks during a Tuesday media tour was the closest most of us are getting to the real thing. And at some 167,000 square feet inside the sprawling, three-rink complex, there’s enough room for Oshie, Johnson and Holtby to walk us upstairs to the bar that will overlook the ice surfaces and splurge some of their eight-figure contracts on a round or two.
Hey, we can all dream, right?
With a pandemic raging, leaving all types of questions about when the NHL will actually start playing this coming season — let alone the one after that, when the Kraken will debut — why not skip ahead a bit? The tour Tuesday provided a glimpse of that, with the team plowing ahead full speed for a mid-July opening of player facilities in time for a training camp it hopes can start on time.
“We’ve been laser-focused on, ‘Let’s get to Fall of 2021,”’ Todd Humphrey, the team’s senior vice president of digital, fan experience, said after walking media members through the future player lounge and dressing room. “We do obviously watch what’s happening in the NHL and with this upcoming season. But we are laser-focused on the Fall of 2021.’’
Humphrey is managing operations at the complex and likes to dream about its future more than anybody. He can point upstairs to the public bar area and talk about how fans will be able to watch Kraken home and away games from there on a giant screen covering part of the venue’s main entrance wall.
But right now, in the midst of what’s supposed to be hockey season, you can’t watch NHL games from there or anyplace else.
The league continues to target Jan. 1 for its 2020-21 season start date — which technically makes it only a 2021 season — though the surge in COVID-19 infections on both sides of the Canadian border makes a New Year’s Day launch increasingly unlikely.
Despite the league not ruling out an 82-game schedule, a reduced one looks more likely — ESPN speculated on one between 48 and 65 games — with the length of the season depending on whether play starts Jan. 1, mid-January or even Feb. 1. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN last week that an all-Canadian division remains a possibility, given restrictions on cross-border travel.
As to when the season will end, the Tokyo Olympics are in late July and NHL broadcast partner NBC has the rights to those.
The NHL keeps insisting the Olympics aren’t a determining factor as to when the Stanley Cup playoffs must end, but getting a “normal’’ 82-game season in for the Kraken’s debut is likely a league priority, and that means starting as close to next fall as possible.
So, you can’t be finishing one season too far after July if you want the next one starting by October or November.
With logistics like those to juggle — and the league should announce some plans by next week — building an $80-million Kraken headquarters seems pretty straightforward. At least it has been thus far, compared to having to suspend a 44-million-pound roof at what’s now Climate Pledge Arena during that construction adventure.
Yes, the practice facility has gone a lot more smoothly, despite losing time to COVID-19 shutdowns. The players’ portion of the venue — including the locker room, lounge and main ice surface — is to be finalized July 15, while the public areas, two remaining ice surfaces and yes, the bar, should be done Sept. 1.
Alexandra Mandrycky, the Kraken’s director of hockey strategy and research, was the team’s only hockey operations employee on the tour Tuesday. As Humphrey led the media procession from the player lounge and up the locker room staircase to administrative offices, she pointed at a set of partially framed-off spaces.
“One of those will probably be my office,’’ she said, chuckling.
Mandrycky knows all about dreaming of a future not yet real. As the organization’s top analytics supervisor, she’s been at work crunching numbers to help the team’s scouting staff anticipate what young hockey prospects — some of whom haven’t played since last March — should look like when the team starts drafting them next summer.
“You’re working with incomplete data, but it’s still data,’’ she said.
That could be made even tougher next February, when the junior Ontario Hockey League plans to prohibit bodychecking to limit the spread of COVID-19. Mandrycky isn’t sure whether any statistical formula can simulate how player stats in a non-checking league will transform to the highly physical NHL.
“I’ll certainly try,’’ she said. “I think everything will sort of have an asterisk next to it this season, but we’ll certainly do our best.’’
She can certainly dream. And in a world like that, where everyone is aiming high and trying their best to survive the present and emerge in a better future, why not keep the dream going?
Especially if it’s kicking back in an off-limits lounge with some players the Kraken hasn’t even selected yet.