SEATTLE – Standing on the recently poured concrete that will be the club-level floor inside Climate Pledge Arena, Tod Leiweke nodded and pointed toward a corner of the upper deck.
That’s where Leiweke, chief executive officer and team president, envisions sitting sometime in the fall of 2021 when the Seattle Kraken skate out from the dressing room three floors below, hoping to be in front of a packed building waiting to welcome the NHL’s newest member.
“We’ve gotten a lot done, but now we look up and we say, hey, 12 months out, maybe less, and counting,” Leiweke said. “This is going to get real.”
Time seems to defy definition now thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the ways it has changed schedules and plans. But after Tampa Bay raised the Stanley Cup on Monday night, the countdown is on.
In about a year, the Kraken will gather for their first training camp in a $90 million practice facility that is the anchor of a massive retail redevelopment. Sometime in late summer or early fall 2021, the arena being built under the iconic roof that’s been part of the Seattle skyline for more than 50 years will be finished.
Eventually, the Kraken will play their first game and officially become the league’s 32nd team.
When the puck will drop remains unknown. The NHL may be headed toward a January 2021 start for the upcoming season and the league would still like to play a full 82-game schedule that would likely drag into the summer. But the NHL is still hoping to start Seattle’s first season on time next fall, especially since it’s planning to send players to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Seattle will be ready regardless, largely because of what it was able to accomplish during the pandemic, highlighted by the launch of the team’s nickname and subsequent merchandise buying frenzy. While the name remains polarizing – most fans love it or hate it – the positive reaction to the slithering “S” as the main logo, the secondary mark that incorporates the Space Needle and the success in sales can’t be denied. In the days following the name announcement, the Kraken were the top-selling team across all sports on Fanatics.com.
“It’s a mark that is the symbol of our brand. But really a brand is made up of 1,000 different pieces that all come together to create a team brand and a feeling of purpose and a soul, and the mark was really important,” Leiweke said. “I walked into that morning believing that people were going to like it. But I think that the reaction of the public exceeded my expectations.”
Seattle also landed Amazon as its naming rights partner for its arena. The Kraken hired Everett Fitzhugh as the first Black team broadcaster in NHL history and continued to build out their hockey operations and scouting staff.
It’s allowed Leiweke to start thinking about the actual hockey product and the day next year when the foundation of the first team will be established through the expansion draft.
“There’s a terrific amount of work in front of us, but in fact we’re on track, and we’re on plan,” Leiweke said. “To feel that, given everything else that’s going on, is pretty amazing.”
Everyone involved expects the arena to be ready in time, especially if the start of the 2021 season is delayed. The roof that had to remain because of its historical landmark status no longer rests on temporary supports. Permanent support structures are in place, while a completely new arena is constructed underneath.
The framework of the seating sections is completed in most areas of the arena, with the exception of one corner still being used to haul materials in and out.
“By far the biggest tests are behind us,” said Ken Johnsen, construction executive overseeing the arena.
The timeline for construction was impacted by the early stages of the virus outbreak, but Johnsen said any lag and supply chain issues have been resolved.
Leiweke said dealing with construction issues is just another example of a challenge his organization needed to work through during the pandemic and thus far been successful at navigating.
“Not to say this project wasn’t already filled with lots of ambition before all of this, but this has made it certainly more challenging and I think people have risen to the challenge,” Leiweke said. “That’s going to be a great story of this whole thing is how people rose up to meet this challenge.”
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