Life on the Road
Frei column: Kraken adds to a deep Pacific Northwest hockey tradition
SEATTLE — Jared Bednar’s two-year contract extension was the big news during the Avalanche’s first visit to Seattle, and I reacted accordingly with this quickie news story and this column.
I wouldn’t have been tempted for a second to offer goal-by-goal, assist-by-assist details of the Avalanche’s 7-3 rout of the expansion Kraken, anyway.
Yet I would have offered more immediate reaction to my first visit to my native U.S. Pacific Northwest for NHL hockey.
I enjoyed it, but continue to find somewhat amusing the narrative often being advanced in many quarters that Seattle specifically, and the Pacific Northwest in general, are “new” hockey territories.
Not even close.
They don’t need to run “Hockey 101” primers in local media.
(Yes, Denver newspapers and other outlets misguidedly did when the Avalanche arrrived in Colorado in 1995, but that’s another story.)
Hockey is a Pacific Northwest tradition.
But first, the Friday night scene and atmosphere …
I attended many Trail Blazers-SuperSonics games at what then was called the Seattle Coliseum, an undersized and intimate building with SRO crowds that still were under 15,000.
The Space Needle, another remnant of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (Elvis even made a filming appearance for the cinema classic, “It Happened at the World’s Fair”) remains on the Seattle Center grounds.
The rebuilt venue that serves as the home of the Kraken — Climate Pledge Arena — is unrecognizable, though. It’s Exhibit A that there are viable alternatives to breaking ground and starting construction from scratch on a “new” site.
So as the Kraken struggle through the early stages of their inaugural NHL season, their building is both unique and impressive.
Well, that and LOUD.
I was raised on The Who and Hendrix, so this isn’t about chasing you off my lawn. But if the amps in “This is Spinal Tap” all go to 11, right across the board, those in Climate Pledge Arena go to 17.
In part, the mega-decibels seem to be a countermeasure to so many of the fans at the early home games dressed in visiting team garb and reacting accordingly.
That was true for the Avalanche’s trashing of the Kraken Friday night. It wasn’t quite like being in Ball Arena for Blackhawks’ games, but along the same lines.
I’m told it was even more so for the earlier Kraken home game against the Rangers, when sections looked — and sounded — like Hell’s Kitchen bars.
What also struck me, both before and during this road trip, was that by refusing to strikingly stack the deck against the Vegas Golden Knights and the Kraken in the expansion process, the NHL has created surprisingly high expectations for its 32nd team.
The Kraken is being covered and followed with the critical and cynical seriousness more suited for an Original Six franchise than an expansion franchise.
Fans and media are apportioning “blame” for the stumbling start, rather than grinning and bearing it, as, say, fans of the Seattle Seahawks did in their 2-12 inaugural season in 1976.
What did you expect from an expansion team?
The NHL answer after the Golden Knights’ stunningly quick success is instant competitiveness … or more.
At least this franchise won’t follow the lead of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, who fled to Milwaukee after one season and were memorialized in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four.” (In honor of Pilots manager Joe Schultz, feel free to go pound some Budweiser.) Come to think of it, I’m wondering if a Kraken fourth liner might be talking into a digital recorder every night. It’d be good book.
The other somewhat surprising common portrayal of the Kraken’s inaugural season is that the NHL has arrived in a new hockey territory.
Actually, as I mentioned earlier, Seattle and the U.S. Pacific Northwest have rich hockey traditions.
Even now, it’s not a hotbed for producing talent, but has been a hockey “market” as far back as when the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Seattle Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917, during their 1915-24 existence. The Stanley Cup then was awarded through what amounted to a challenge process.
The NHL was founded in 1917, replacing the National Hockey Association on the professional hockey scene, and the first NHL team to win the Stanley Cup was the New York Rangers in 1928.
The most notable of the Metropolitans’ other two Stanley Cup finals appearances was in 1919, when the Spanish Flu pandemic led to the cancellation of the series with the Metropolitans tied 2-2-1 with the Montreal Canadiens.
Then the Seattle Totems were long-time members of the Western Hockey League, the minor-league pro version. That’s the league that first drew my hockey attention, and it at various times included other franchises such as the Portland Buckaroos, San Francisco Seals, San Diego Gulls, Vancouver Canucks, Phoenix Roadrunners and even the Denver Spurs from 1968-74.
The Buckaroos’ games occasionally were televised by Portland’s Channel 12, with sports director Jimmy Jones at the microphone. I watched.
Among the league’s entrenched superstars were the Totems’ Guyle Fielder (both recognized and honored by the Kraken, per the linked story) and the Buckaroos’ Art Jones. who in their era showed that some terrific players couldn’t crack and stick in the NHL, or even want to stick on the fringe of an NHL roster.
Then the Seattle Breakers arrived in 1977 as the city’s entry in major junior’s Western Hockey League, one of the three major junior leagues competing under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella. The were renamed the Thunderbirds in 1977.
The Kraken’s arrival didn’t kill off or chase away the Thunderbirds. They moved to suburban Kent and the ShoWare Center in 2009 and have been there ever since. Their alumni include Patrick Marleau, Petr Nedved, Chris Osgood, Mark Parrish, Matthew Barzal, Jan Hrdina, Brooks Laich, Jon Klemm and Calvin Pickard. The full list.
Sakic is among the many current and former NHL stars who played in Seattle against the Thunderbirds. He was a member of the Swift Current Broncos for two seasons before joining the Nordiques.
One of the other U.S.-based entries in the major junior version of the WHL are the Portland Winterhawks, part of another heated Portland-Seattle hockey rivalry. Actually, it makes Sonics-Blazers seem like singing around the campfire and in hockey terms reminds me of CC-DU.
The other U.S. franchises all are in Washington, too — the Everett Silvertips, Tri-City (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco) Americans, and Spokane Chiefs. You ask: Who own the Chiefs? The majority owner is Bobby Brett and one of the other partners is his brother, a fellow named George.
The NHL seems likely to stay at the conveniently divided 32 teams for the foreseeable future, but Portland should be at the top of the list for franchise location or expansion. The only asterisk there is that the Winterhawks are a reasonably priced alternative to Trail Blazers games and many of their season-ticket holders — the biggest hockey fans in town — would be priced out of the buildings if the Winterhawks move out of the area completely. (They play in both the Moda Center and the still-standing adjacent Veterans Memorial Coliseum.)
But hockey is not even close to being “new” in Seattle and its region.
Terry Frei (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here