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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  NHL

John Blanchette: Spokane hockey fans simply couldn’t get enough of the Kraken on opening night

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 27, 2021

As the line grew outside Spokane Arena with ticket holders eager for the doors to open into the brave new world of the National Hockey League in our state, do did a worry.

As the line grew outside Spokane Arena with ticket holders eager for the doors to open into the brave new world of the National Hockey League in our state, so did a worry.

Nearly everyone in the queue already had a Seattle Kraken shirt. A jersey. A hat.

Looked like a tough night for the apparel vendors.

Except that a glance maybe a half-hour later revealed 50-some fans snaking out from a souvenir table on the north concourse … including a few who already had Kraken laundry.

Always good to have a backup in case of a mustard stain or beer spillage.

Kidding. Once again, the magnetism of geographic proximity wins the day.

“It was unbelievable to be honest,” said center Ryan Donato. “Seeing all the Kraken jerseys and how everything is growing so fast, it’s truly awesome.”

You have to figure that at least half the Kraken-clothed among the 10,208 who jammed into the Arena for the franchise’s maiden competitive venture on Sunday night were hockey fans who already had an NHL fave – maybe even the Vancouver Canucks, the evening’s opponent.

Certainly that accounted for the fact that the first sign displayed even before warmups read, “Go Canucks Go.” But, hey, they’re from the Pacific Northwest, too.

Dynamics change whenever someone new moves into the neighborhood.

And it’s the Kraken whose regular-season games will be just a four-hour drive away – or a mere click away to ROOT Sports, which owns its TV rights and already has the region’s sports fans well-trained. The old superstations are long gone, but ROOT’s fully distributed network is the closest thing to a Northwest equivalent and it’s bound to cement easy loyalties and change old ones.

But that’s a long-term influence.

It certainly had nothing to do with the instant love affair between the expansion Kraken and Spokane on Sunday night.

And the noise that went up when Riley Sheahan banged home the franchise’s first goal two and a half minutes into the second period rivaled those heard at any Spokane Chiefs sellout. Heck, even the happy accident of Morgan Geekie’s eventual winning goal from a faceoff got a lusty roar, and he had to overcome the sin of playing for the Tri-City Americans in a former life.

Then he slammed the door in a 5-3 victory with a second goal with 5:23 left. What, does he think he’s going to get a statue erected here?

Nope. Just a niche. A role. That’s what exhibition games are for, and maybe a few of the Kraken players made inroads in that fashion in this debut.

Meanwhile, the hard work of loyalty building is still ahead, and it’s not automatic.

From the moment Seattle was awarded an NHL team, its first principals and each staff and roster addition has undoubtedly been reminded that the previous NHL expansionists in Las Vegas set an impossible standard – that they’re nevertheless presumed capable of matching. In their first year of existence in 2018, the Golden Knights won the Pacific Division and reached the Stanley Cup final – and they’ve yet to miss the playoffs.

So whatcha got for an encore, Kraken? Other than a better name than those guys, that is.

Well, the answer wasn’t going to come in the first exhibition game.

The foundational blocks of this franchise have differed dramatically from those of the Vegas operation, to be sure. The Golden Knights didn’t skimp in the expansion draft; the Kraken were more conservative in doling out portions from their salary cap. The Knights swung a slew of trades; Seattle dished a couple unwanted parts for future draft choices.

But with an analytics department that’s almost as deep as the roster, Kraken general manager Ron Francis spent judiciously on some free agents, in particular the goalie tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger – first and 13th, respectively, in save percentage over the past two seasons, and by that standard the best duo in the league.

If there has been a worry about offense, it didn’t show up this night – though, yes, it was a very exhibition-y lineup the Canucks put out there. That first goal by Sheahan, in fact, came from Seattle’s fourth line, suggesting the depth the club has touted might be real. Donato, who scored the first go-ahead goal on a pretty power-play around-the-horn with Jared McCann and Jordan Eberle, is on his fourth team in five NHL seasons, but he’s being given an great opportunity on the A line.

But in this kind of circumstance, it’s all about opportunity – even though coach Dave Hakstol, who spent three-plus seasons as head coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, doesn’t necessarily see the circumstances as all that different.

“Every year is a new year, in my belief,” he said. “You’re always building a new team. It’s just in this case, everybody is new.

“But there’s a great opportunity because everybody is new, everybody’s digging in and working hard to find that chemistry and to become part of a real strong group. What I’ve seen is a bunch of guys who are excited to do that.”

Why not? Looking around the Arena on this night, they saw that everybody looks good in a Kraken jersey.

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