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Sports >  NHL

Seattle Kraken are listening to women and trying to shift the NHL culture: ‘This is how it should be’

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 31, 2020

A flag with the logo for the Seattle NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, flies atop the iconic Space Needle in Seattle.  (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
A flag with the logo for the Seattle NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, flies atop the iconic Space Needle in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Kraken professional scout Cammi Granato was raised in a hockey-playing household alongside four brothers, meaning she never felt intimidated by the sport’s male-dominated environment.

But that 1980s and 1990s experience also enables the Hockey Hall of Famer a direct comparison to the “refreshing” environment experienced within the Kraken. Granato is one of three women in hockey operations for an expansion franchise where the female influence permeates the entire organization.

“I grew up in a man’s game,” the longtime Team USA star said via phone last Monday as she prepared to scout the Dallas Stars in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal against Colorado from her British Columbia home. “I played organized hockey my entire life. I was kind of used to that world and I understood it. But now … it’s so refreshing to have it be so diverse. This is how it should be. There should be women. It should be diverse like this. Because it’s more powerful. Everybody has different vantage points … and that’s a recipe for success.”

But what Granato won’t see these coming weeks as she flips her TV between Sportsnet and NBC Sports game feeds, preparing detailed player notes critical to the Kraken ahead of next year’s expansion draft, is any on-air analysis from commentator Mike Milbury. The onetime Boston Bruins player and coach has stepped away from remaining NBC playoff duties after a widely criticized on-air quip about women.

Milbury’s co-host, Brian Boucher, said during last Thursday’s broadcast, of player life inside “bubble” zones where no outsiders are permitted: “If you enjoy playing and enjoy being with your teammates for long periods of time, it’s a perfect place.” That’s when Milbury interjected that there were “Not even any women here to disrupt … your concentration.”

Milbury, 68, later apologized but was roundly condemned for reducing women to objects of distraction for men. This came after Milbury’s recent on-air swipe at women’s hockey in another bad joke attempt.

Katie Strang summarized the collective anger in a column for The Athletic, suggesting Milbury’s “lazy trope” has no place on the airwaves in today’s modern game.

“Does Milbury not understand how many women probably were integral in making sure this whole hockey bubble experiment works?” Strang wrote. “From the league? The NHLPA? The NHL clubs? His own broadcast?”

There’s a chance Granato would be inside the bubble had the Kraken been in these playoffs. Same with Alexandra Mandrycky, the Kraken’s director of hockey strategy and research, who oversees a four-member team that includes another woman, senior analyst Namita Nandakumar.

Would they be distractions for players? Of course not.

Granato’s first and only experience with Milbury was positive; as general manager of the New York Islanders, he invited her to partake in the team’s 1997 training camp. She was flattered by his apparent encouragement of her career, though she eventually declined given the camp’s proximity to the upcoming 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

She had a different reaction to Milbury’s comments from last week.

“As a woman, it was a disappointment to me,” Granato said.

She refrained from saying more, citing her limited knowledge of Milbury beyond their lone interaction.

There’s a bigger teachable moment here regarding what’s gone on with the Kraken and broader NHL, explaining the strong reactions by so many to Milbury’s comment that no longer applies to this league.

Granato can’t say enough about how the Kraken has elevated the voices of women. She loves how all employees – even hockey operations personnel, who are typically separate from office staffers – are encouraged to attend weekly virtual staff meetings to have a say in what’s being built. She welcomes feeling part of that beyond her specific role scouting from her living room.

“They really are trying to do things differently,” she said of the Kraken. “It’s something I’m proud to be part of. Seeing so many women in so many different roles. Our leaders, I can’t stress enough how inclusive and open they are. It’s just a really healthy place to be.”

The Kraken have 15 women among their 32 managers and directors and eight women among 26 vice-presidents and senior vice presidents, equating to 47% and 31%, respectively, for each grouping. The team also counts 42 women – 41% – on a total team and arena staff of 103.

When the team name was announced, Kraken marketing vice president Heidi Dettmer was at the microphone.

Kraken communications, both corporate and media, are handled by senior vice president Katie Townsend. The new team store that opened last week was conceived and designed primarily by Janiel MacKay.

Shortly after the Kraken hired Kendall Boyd-Tyson as vice president of strategy and analytics last year, I wrote that the NHL’s increased diversity push isn’t about political correctness. It’s a survival tool borne of decades spent overcoming its past as a de facto six-team house league dominated by white Canadian men.

The NHL believes its future depends on hiring the best people and reaching the broadest base of fans possible. As this country’s long-standing No. 4 sports league, it can’t afford to alienate anyone and should be aiming for a wider audience.

Same goes for the Kraken, trying to make it in an untested NHL market.

Mandrycky has sensed a change from when she was introduced to the NHL as an analytics specialist with the Minnesota Wild five years ago.

“It wasn’t just men; I would get mistaken by women who didn’t even know I was an employee of the team,” Mandrycky said of some Wild staffers or player spouses who’d see her at team events. “They were assuming I was a wife or girlfriend because that’s what they know.”

Mandrycky never felt offended by it, knowing attitudes would change as people grew accustomed to her.

Next month, she’ll return from parental leave – having given birth to a son 11 weeks ago – and work closely with general manager Ron Francis in navigating a changed COVID-19 landscape. One project could involve devising analytical models to gauge teenage draft prospects who might miss a year of action before getting on the ice again.

Mandrycky wouldn’t comment directly on Milbury. But she said: “Hockey in general, we’re shifting stereotypes. And I think the Kraken is part of that.

“I don’t really blame people who’ve never been in a room where there’s a woman sitting and talking about hockey players. It’s hardA to shift those attitudes. But as you sit at a table with one woman, two women, three women – in our organization, there’s many, many women in the room and there’s visibility there – that’s how you sort of shift the collective mindset in hockey and society in general.”

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