For a team thrown together this summer, then showing up Thursday night unzipped, mussy-haired and short-handed to the world’s largest nightclub, the Kraken managed to stay on the Las Vegas stage with the hometown act long enough to get the customers talking:
Who’s the kids in the cool threads?
Seattle’s historic entry into the National Hockey League wasn’t a win, but by entertainment standards, it was a success. Down 2-0 in the first seven minutes, the Kraken rallied to tie with less than 12 minutes remaining. But a controversial skate-kick goal gave the Las Vegas Golden Knights a 4-3 win that was not certain until 00:00, which set off a roar at T-Mobile Arena.
First-year expectations for pro-sports expansion teams traditionally are minuscule — except for hockey, and this opponent.
The Knights are Seattle’s expansion “twin” born four years apart. They went to the Stanley Cup finals their first season, and have become a powerhouse. For every one of Seattle’s 82 regular-season games, it will be compared to the 2018 Knights, and is unlikely to keep pace. In the interregnum, hockey and the world changed.
Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke, who knows a little bit about sports franchises, having done remarkable things with the Seahawks, Sounders and NBA Portland Trail Blazers, as well as the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, has admired the Vegas template.
“I think we are inspired a lot by what Vegas did on and off the ice,” he told The Athletic in July. “But we’ve got to chart our own course. We have a unique set of circumstances. We’ve been through a global pandemic. Every situation is unique.
“They became a stellar franchise. They became best practices in so many ways. Their ownership are folks that we admire. Well, we hired a guy (general manager Ron Francis) that played in the league for 23 years and has an incredible list of accomplishments. He now has an incredible opportunity to shape this team. It is not going to be without a lot of opportunity. I don’t think he is bound by conventional thinking.
“This has been a long time coming. I thought years and years ago, this could be a great NHL town. And it is.”
If merchandise sales are any indication, Leiweke was right. In the first 24 hours of Kraken gear sales in July 2020, the expansion franchise was the top-selling team across all major sports leagues. Since then, according to Fanatics, the NHL’s official retail partner, the Kraken have sold more than four times the record set by the Knights. Kraken sweater sales in the first five days from launch set an NHL record.
“Even though we felt strong about the brand and Seattle was excited for it, you’re always so nervous that first day,” Brian Jennings, NHL chief brand officer, told ESPN recently. “But the fan response was over the moon.”
Novelty, of course, always sells. And spectacle too. The Knights certainly checked that box Thursday with a wild pre-game that included on the ice a 3-D hologram depiction of an animated kraken breaking through ice, only to be slain by a live, costumed knight.
But the decider for franchise success is always the quality and competitiveness of the sport. That long task started for the Kraken with a couple of jolts.
The first was a covid-19 episode Monday that kept three players — Jared McCann, Joonas Donskoi and Jamie Oleksiak — off the team plane to Vegas; a fourth, Marcus Johansson, made the flight when he cleared protocol. A fifth, Calle Jarnkrok, tested positive and missed the game. The other three were cleared Tuesday morning and all played.
The second jolt came in the game’s first 6:36, when the seasoned Knights scored twice and threatened a runaway, then made it 3-0 into the second period.
But the Kraken defense settled in. Ryan Donato scored the franchise’s first goal at 31:32, followed 69 seconds later by a shot from McCann. Suddenly, game on. In the third period, Morgan Geekie fired a shot over the shoulder of the Knights’ keeper to tie, and conjure dreams of upset.
But 35 seconds later, Chandler Stephenson used his right skate to kick, or deflect, the puck past Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer. The ruling of a score was upheld upon view review, officials saying there was no kicking motion that would have nullified the goal. Judge for yourself:
The call did not sit well with Kraken coach Dave Hakstol.
“I know what I saw and believed…I thought it was a kicking motion,” he said. “There’s a gray area on those calls. Their decision was, it’s a good goal.”
The gray area became black and white. Once the Kraken failed to exploit two simultaneous Vegas penalties that provided a 4-3 advantage on the ice, the chance faded for a little storybook finish for the first night of the first season against the Knights on their home ice.
“It’s exciting to play in their building; they probably want to show us we can’t do what they did,” Johansson told the Seattle Times before the game. “And we want to show them the other way around.”
It’s been nearly 100 years since the Stanley Cup champion Metropolitans last provided big league hockey for Seattle. It’s hard to get it all back at once.