Kraken country north: Inside an NHL expansion team’s effort to wrap its tentacles around Alaska

Seattle’s new hockey team is getting involved with community efforts and businesses in Alaska. “It’s on us to prove that we’re good neighbors,” the Kraken’s president said.

SEATTLE — Matt Shasby leaned into the spotlight at center ice in front of a cheering sellout crowd.

He raised a puck over his head, then dropped it at center ice to celebrate one of the most remarkable wins in the history of UAA hockey, the team he was recently hired to coach.

But this photo-op, which honored the fundraising work that spared Seawolf hockey from existential demise, didn’t happen on home ice. It was part of a warm embrace from the NHL’s newest team, some 1,400 miles away from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Sharing the big-league shine is part of the Seattle Kraken’s aggressive game plan to wrap their tentacles around Alaska, and pay attention to the small-market state in a way that few, if any, major league teams have before.

“We want to be the team that does things differently, and we want to be Alaska’s team,” said Melissa O’Brochta, a corporate partnership manager for the Kraken.

If that sounds like marketing lip service — a new club claiming a hockey-hungry state that has no pro team — note its Alaska-focused efforts so far.

This year, the Kraken invited two Alaska-based companies to sell their products inside Climate Pledge Arena, the team’s state-of-the-art home in the shadow of the Space Needle. This winter, the team will sponsor a growing, weekendlong pond hockey tournament in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. And months before the puck dropped on the Kraken’s first season, the NHL team inserted itself into the volunteer campaign to save UAA hockey, boosting cash and lending visibility and momentum.

In August, UAA announced the Seawolves would return in 2022, the achievement recognized before the Kraken faced the Colorado Avalanche last week in Seattle. “You can’t put any kind of a dollar amount on that kind of support,” said Kathie Bethard, chair of Save Seawolf Hockey.

The Oct. 19 game, just the team’s ninth at home, was dubbed “Alaska Hockey Appreciation Night.”

“It is cool that we get to take Alaska on as our own. It’s definitely a priority for us …” said O’Brochta. “I don’t think any other NHL team has really taken Alaska on the way that we’re trying to.”

Tod’s Big Ideas

As the Kraken make moves in Alaska, staff say president and CEO Tod Leiweke, a veteran sports executive who has worked with top-tier football, soccer and basketball franchises, is pointing the way.

“We have an ongoing list titled ‘Tod Big Ideas’ ...” O’Brochta said. “Tod Big Ideas had one word on it one time, and it said ‘Alaska.’ ”

Leiweke said Alaska has been part of his vision for the Kraken since early in his planning for the expansion franchise. “We negotiated with the league, and we really made the case that Alaska should be part of our territory, which means that we were then able to broadcast games into Alaska,” Leiweke said.

“We were super excited when that happened,” he said. “We felt that there was so much hockey equity that could come into our world with Alaska being our territory.”

Kyle Boyd, the Kraken’s director of fan development, said that to foster a hockey culture in Seattle, it helps to tap into a place where that energy pulses.

“There aren’t outdoor rinks here,” Boyd said of the Seattle area. “There isn’t necessarily a whole lot of wintertime. But I know our youth hockey players dream of going to places like Alaska, where they can go and play outside.”

The Kraken leaned on that mystique in a video it produced for fans this year. Released in August, the episode of “SightSEAing with Fitz,” a reference to team broadcaster Everett Fitzhugh, sparkles with inviting backyard rinks and sweeping views of Alaska looking its frosty finest.

“I’m currently standing on Flattop Mountain overlooking the gorgeous city of Anchorage, Alaska,” Fitzhugh’s introduction begins. “And we’re here because this, all of this, is Kraken country.”

Boyd hopes for something mutually beneficial by plugging the Kraken into Alaska’s hockey “ecosystem.” The team gains an opportunity to foster and grow the sport while attaching itself to a story about hockey’s rich culture.

In February, that will involve the Last Frontier Pond Hockey Classic, hosted by the Scotty Gomez Foundation. Now in its seventh year, the outdoor tournament has grown into a weekendlong event that will likely attract 150 teams to the frozen surface of Big Lake, said Carlos Gomez, the foundation president and father of its namesake retired NHL veteran, who is from Anchorage.

Carlos Gomez said the Kraken’s involvement, a two-year pledge of $27,500 per year, will help with the cost of 22 sets of new boards.

“They had as much interest in us as we had in them,” Gomez said.

“We’re actually a paid sponsor, and people typically pay us,” Leiweke said. “And we joined that because it’s cool.”

There are hints of more to come. Earlier this year, the team teased future appearances in Alaska by Kraken pros. “Members of the Seattle Kraken team and coaching staff will hold annual camps in Alaska for kids with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, providing access to young people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity or exposure to the game,” a press release said.

Boyd said neighborhood-level involvement plays a role in business strategy, but it requires long-term thinking. Success won’t likely be measured in dollars in the near term.

“At the same time, those incremental revenues will add up over time,” he said. “The kid who purchased a hat today, and a sweatshirt tomorrow, and a jersey two years from now, and season tickets after that, suddenly has become a fan for life.”

Leiweke said not every decision is about profit and loss.

“When you say you’re committed to community, it’s a really cool thing to say, but then you better act upon it,” he said.

Seawolves in Seattle

A couple hours before the Kraken took the ice Friday, green- and gold-clad Seawolf fans filled tables at Queen Anne Beerhall a few blocks from the arena. Coach Shasby and UAA Chancellor and former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell joined the party. Longtime supporters Jerry and Shirley Dewhurst hugged alumni goalie Jon Olthuis and his wife, Stephanie.

Bethard, chair of Save Seawolf Hockey, estimated about 250 Alaskans made the trip to Seattle, thanks in part to game tickets donated by the Kraken.

The gathering was both a family reunion and a collective sigh of relief.

In 2020, the University of Alaska Board of Regents eliminated UAA’s hockey program but said it could be reinstated if supporters drummed up the $3 million it would cost to operate for two years. It had until the end of August 2021 to find the cash.

“We’re grassroots, doing the mom-and-pop type of giving,” Bethard said. Tactics included a split-the-pot drawing and a silent auction.

Things changed when the Kraken got involved, Bethard said, despite one painful false start. At first, the team wanted to donate $50,000, but the fundraisers had to refuse because the NCAA wouldn’t allow a gift from a pro sports organization, Bethard said.

Instead, members of the Kraken ownership group gave privately. Leiweke and David Bonderman are both listed as $50,000-plus donors on the Save Seawolf Hockey website. Minority owner David Wright is also listed. Bethard said many other Kraken employees also made individual donations.

“I guess I was surprised that they were taking such a deep interest in us,” she said.

Bethard said Kraken staff also provided consultation, particularly about soliciting corporate support.

“We’ve been on constant calls, weekly calls, for the last several, several months,” said Sergio Magallanes, the Kraken’s senior manager for global partnerships. “We’re trying to help as much as we possibly could behind the scenes.”

Magallanes, who was raised in Juneau, said Root Sports, the regional television network that now carries Kraken games, helped spread the word. That allowed Save Seawolf Hockey to reach potential donors in Washington and Oregon. The Kraken also lent the megaphone of their own social media outlets to the cause.

“We need your help to #SaveSeawolfHockey and keep the green and gold on the ice,” the team tweeted in February.

“We were everywhere hearing about Save Seawolf Hockey,” Bethard said.

In August, UAA announced the team’s reinstatement after volunteers raised $3.1 million. In October, Shasby, a former UAA and Alaska Aces player, was named head coach. Leiweke downplayed the Kraken’s involvement in the team’s fundraising success, but he said he felt passionately that UAA hockey, one of just two Division I college hockey teams in the Kraken’s territory, must endure.

“We didn’t save it,” he said. “We joined a legion of fans. Over a thousand people gave to this campaign.”

A long-term bond was born, Shasby said. He had a chance to say thanks last week, when the Kraken hosted a dinner for the campaign’s biggest donors in their new 172,000-square-foot, three-rink Kraken Community Iceplex in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood.

“It’s my life’s honor to represent this (Seawolves) logo,” Shasby told Leiweke and the donors, tapping a hand to his UAA jacket. “We are an expansion college hockey team. We have a road ahead where we have to establish ourselves in college hockey as a place that a student athlete wants to attend, and that’s going to take time.”

“Go Seawolves and go Kraken,” he said.

Alaska Hockey Night

If the Kraken want to be Alaska’s quasi-hometown team, hockey fans familiar with the Aces and Seawolves game-day experience may need to recalibrate expectations.

Climate Pledge Arena, recently redeveloped for $1.15 billion, might leave some slack-jawed. Its soaring atriums, booming sound system and dazzling light shows don’t call to mind Sullivan Arena’s more humble charms. Days before the Kraken played the Avalanche, tickets on the resale market started at about $100, but many more were offered for $200 to $300 each. Beers here are $15.

But Alaska was invoked early and often that Friday night. The team’s 11-minute Alaska tribute video played as fans were getting seated. Midway through the first period, Anchorage resident Autumn Makar blew a kiss from the arena’s upper deck as she was named a “Starbucks Community Star” for her support of youth hockey back home. And two businesses with Alaska roots are making sure fans can get a taste of Alaska at each home game.

On Friday, Bristol Bay Wild Market, one of 13 concession stands operating in the arena, did brisk business, offering Alaska sockeye sandwiches and Alaska cod fish and chips. Wild Market is the result of the team’s partnership with Bristol Bay Native Corp.

Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of BBNC, said he hoped to work with the team since he saw a newspaper poll about what the expansion team should be named years ago.

“The No. 1 fan choice was the Sockeye,” he said. “Then we thought, ‘OK, there’s an immediate connection between Bristol Bay, the world’s largest sockeye fishery.’ ”

The team chose another name, but the Kraken reached out to BBNC about selling Alaska seafood.

“It’s a foodie town,” Metrokin said. “We thought what a great marketing opportunity.”

BBNC was even consulted on the plush salmon that Kraken game stars toss into the stands after a home win, to ensure the fish depicted is anatomically correct. “They have a little tag on the salmon that talks about the sustainability of salmon fisheries,” Metrokin said of the souvenirs. That was a message he also delivered by way of a video shown on the big arena screens between periods.

On Friday, a canned cocktail from Talkeetna was available in two Climate Pledge locations, according to Sassen Mossanen, CEO of Twister Creek Inc. Soon the Seattle Kraken Drop, a vodka drink made with bitters and lemon, will be available arena-wide, he said.

It was only about four months ago when Kraken and Climate Pledge representatives reached out to the distillery’s headquarters to gauge interest in developing a ready-to-drink cocktail. Mossanen said his first concern was whether he could clear hurdles and meet demand in Seattle. Neither Denali Spirits nor Denali Brewing had distributed outside Alaska prior.

“There’s no information out there that could guide us, letting us know what these quantities would be,” Mossanen said.

Product development was fast and furious, and rollout is still ramping up, but it’s an exciting moment. Turning the Kraken down might’ve been a decision he’d regret for the rest of his life, he said.

Mossanen said Friday’s game, which he watched from a concourse level with his family, was memorable.

“While I was at the game, honestly I don’t want to sound like too much of a sap, but it was difficult to not get emotional about the opportunity that was going to open up for us,” he said.

Down on the ice, though, the dominant emotion was frustration for the home team on Alaska Hockey Appreciation Night. The Avalanche scored two unanswered goals in the first period, then four more in the second. The Kraken were looking up from a seven-goal abyss in the third period before right winger Jordan Eberle scored the first of the team’s three. The crowd’s roar betrayed its uncynical thirst for more hockey despite the impending loss.

Kraken staff members say they’ve only begun to find ways to keep Alaska involved. “There’s something unique about the NHL in Seattle, the Seattle Kraken, and hockey in Alaska,” Leiweke said. “And it’s for us.”

“It’s on us to prove that we’re good neighbors and we’re sincere,” he said. “And if fans in Alaska become fans of the Kraken, it’s uniquely special. It’s not just adding one fan. It’s adding a fan from a legacy hockey state.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.