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How the Seattle Kraken Are Striving to Change Hockey Culture for the Better

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIOctober 22, 2021

Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

The Seattle Kraken might be the NHL's newest team, but they've become more than a hockey club for the community.

Bold ambitions characterize an organization that stands for more than wins, losses, dollars and cents. Hockey might take center stage, but the Kraken are fighting climate change and youth homelessness, and the team provides an influential platform. They are also bringing hockey to underserved communities around Seattle.

But they are not just tweeting about it. The Kraken are living, breathing and—most importantly—practicing their values.

Several high-profile incidents have exposed the toxicity of the sport's culture over the past few years, with issues ranging from verbal abuse by coaches to racism and misogyny. 

Historically, hockey culture has not been tolerant, diverse or inclusive. The expansion club may have only filled out its roster in July, but it was already prepared for the moments that defined the past two years and ready to push forward this culture by starting within its own organization.

"What's cool is when starting a new team, a new franchise, we don't really have a totally defined hockey culture yet," Mari Horita, the Kraken's vice president of community engagement and social impact, told Bleacher Report. "And so we get it's on us; if we don't build that inclusive culture, that's our failure."

Mari Horita is the Kraken's Vice President of Community Engagement and Social Impact
Mari Horita is the Kraken's Vice President of Community Engagement and Social ImpactSeattle Kraken
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North American professional sports is a realm that is largely white and male in boardrooms and front offices. But club CEO Tod Leiweke, who has held executive positions with the PGA Tour and NFL, NHL, NBA and MLS teams, saw beyond the traditional confines of what a team should look like and could look like. Leiweke has made his desire for a more diverse, more inclusive hockey team known.

He recently told 425 Business:

"I think all we are is an organization that's reflective of the community we serve. I don't know that we're necessarily unique. … Last time I checked, half the world's population were women, but they've been so understated in the world of sports. Today, 45 percent of our front office represent gender diversity, our front office now has 25 percent BIPOC diversity, and that's important."

This is still a hockey team, and the hockey product matters, but its goals on and off the ice tie together. On the eve of their inaugural home opener, let the people closest to the situation explain how.

             

A Diverse Staff for a Diverse City

It starts with staffing. Pro sports teams tend to recycle personnel. The pay is often low at the low-to-mid levels of the industry, which can significantly limit the candidate pools. It's easier to hire from the old boys club because that requires less legwork from leadership and creates barriers to entry. You can't get into sports unless you have experience, but you can't get experience without getting a foot in the door, so the pipeline runs dry, management looks to the same group of people and the ideas often become stale. 

Industry experience is important, so lifelong sports industries staffers have value, but the Kraken wanted to bring in outside perspectives.

They feel they're better able to reach fans of different backgrounds if they have a staff of people from those backgrounds. Diversity in personnel breeds diversity in thought.

Kyle Boyd played hockey growing up in Minnesota, and his father, Dr. Joel Boyd, has been the Wild's team physician since the club's inception, but working in hockey wasn't on his radar until a chance encounter with Leiweke. He was a high school history teacher when he met Leiweke at an open skate in Renton, Washington.

Kyle Boyd's Chance Encounter with Tod Leiweke Led to a Job With the Seattle Kraken
Kyle Boyd's Chance Encounter with Tod Leiweke Led to a Job With the Seattle KrakenSeattle Kraken

"Tod, who I didn't know at the time, came up to me and said: 'Wow, you're a really great skater. Where are you from? What's your background? Where'd you grow up?'" Boyd said.

Leiweke, having previously worked for the Wild, knew his father (Dr. Boyd had once stitched up Leiweke after an accident on the ice). The executive mentioned he was working on bringing hockey to Seattle. Having been one of few Black players on his teams growing up, Boyd wanted hockey to grow in marginalized communities. He was not shy about expressing his thoughts, telling the CEO he should make sure the new team reached a diverse group.

Boyd skated away with a business card from Leiweke but thought nothing of the conversation until he brought it up to his dad. 

"He's like: 'You met Tod. Tod Leiweke is a very big deal,'" Boyd said. "And I said, 'Oh, if you say so.'"

Boyd's sister, Kendall Tyson, was eager to learn more about potential positions with the new hockey club and encouraged her brother to reach out to Leiweke. Boyd arranged a meeting and successfully helped his sister get a job, as she is now the vice president for strategy and analytics. He also landed a job of his own that taps into his education background. 

As the Kraken's director of fan development, Boyd is helping to create ball hockey curricula that will be implemented in public school physical education classes throughout the market. He's also working on partnerships with YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and parks and recreation departments. He's using other sports and pop culture to connect with kids who might not be familiar with hockey, even taking a page from Disney.

"I say, and it's a bit tongue in cheek, but the Mighty Ducks film franchise had an incredible hand in shaping how I thought about my own hockey journey and how I thought about the game," Boyd said. "Seeing that diverse cast coming together on screen was, for me as a very young person in the '90s, really influential in terms of how I perceived hockey and what hockey to be, in terms of having boys and girls on the same team."

Others had less involvement in hockey than Boyd, but they brought something to the table that translated to their roles. Horita, a third-generation Japanese American, was an attorney who had vast experience with nonprofits in Seattle. Vice president of communications Katie Townsend, a native of the United Kingdom, had a journalism background and worked as a producer for the BBC for much of her career before moving into international public relations. Sadie Klingman, an executive assistant in hockey operations, was a server in a restaurant when Leiweke and his wife, Tara, sat in her section.

Katie Townsend Joined the Kraken After a Lengthy Stint With the BBC
Katie Townsend Joined the Kraken After a Lengthy Stint With the BBCSeattle Kraken

Many of the hires came from chance meetings with Leiweke. Several members of the Seattle staff said he's adept at identifying talent and placing people in positions to have personal success and to help the organization achieve success.

Also, there's this: "They hired women. That is a big difference," a former NHL analyst said.

Alexandra Mandrycky was the club's first hockey operations hire as the director of hockey strategy and research. Some in the industry think she could become the NHL's first female general manager. Senior analyst Namita Nandakumar worked for the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Kraken. The department will attract top talent in the front office because of how it operates and who works in key positions.

The fan experience at Climate Pledge Arena has been carefully considered to reflect these values as well. The team works with intersectionality consultant Chanel Keenan, a Cambodian American who has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, and uses a motorized wheelchair. She has helped the team not only with diversity and inclusion initiatives but also the game presentation at Climate Pledge Arena and the fan experience for people with disabilities.

"You look at Seattle, right away, they've got people of color, they've got women, they've got intersectionality consultants, they've got disabled people being hired," the NHL source said. "They made a concerted effort to make sure that everybody feels welcome in the organization. And given the current hockey climate, you can't really say that about anybody else."

The broadcast booth reflects the same values. Everett Fitzhugh is the first Black play-by-play announcer in the NHL. Fitzhugh called games in the minor leagues and was considered an up-and-coming talent. Mike Benton, who works as the pregame, postgame and intermission host, brings a local following as the longtime radio voice of the Everett Silvertips. Former NHL forward J.T. Brown is teaming with Hall of Fame announcer John Forslund for the Root Sports broadcasts.

One of the newest voices of the Seattle Kraken, Everett Fitzhugh
One of the newest voices of the Seattle Kraken, Everett FitzhughChristopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

"It has to be authentic," Townsend said of the broadcast talent. "It's like: 'We hired because we believe you could do a really good job on the broadcast. Now how can we support you and you can support us in some of our other community-based initiatives?'"

"A lot of times it's hard to believe something if you can't see it," Brown said. "So to have that representation, for a younger kid to be able to see someone who looks like him, that puts you in a different spot. Or, maybe it's not the hockey players who look like them, but maybe they wanted to do something on the business side and working with teams. That's where you see the diversity that Seattle is bringing in.

"It's a pretty special organization to be a part of."

          

Hockey Is for Everyone. Really.

The Pacific Northwest has a rich junior hockey history. With four Western Hockey League teams in Washington and one in Oregon, the Kraken should tap in to the existing fanbase. But any new team still needs new fans, and a market that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska has long been viewed as having potential for success.

Hockey is sometimes seen as a sport out of reach for many. It's expensive. It's niche. The Kraken aim to make it accessible and affordable through grassroots programs. While this isn't a new idea—many NHL teams fund junior programs or teach learn-to-play programs—the Kraken aren't waiting for young fans to show an interest. They are going into underserved communities to reach fans of all backgrounds by partnering with schools and community organizations and through the Kraken Community IcePlex.

A Look Inside the Kraken Community Iceplex
A Look Inside the Kraken Community IceplexChristopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

The three-sheet facility will serve as the team's training center, but every aspect of it was designed to foster the growth of the game. The Kraken have a financial assistance program to help players under age 18 from low-income backgrounds afford participation in their array of youth hockey offerings (learn-to-play and learn-to-skate programs, the Jr Kraken and Jr Squid and other skating and skills camps and clinics). It's near a light rail station, so it's easily accessible by public transportation.

"It wasn't just about building a great training facility for our players—which it is—but also ensuring that the community could come in and be exposed to all of its sports," Boyd said. "Figure skating, ice hockey, curling, so on and so forth."

This fits under the One Roof Foundation umbrella. The foundation is the club's philanthropic arm, used to support the values of the team and the arena. It has three core pillars, one of which is youth access to hockey. The other two are addressing youth homelessness and environmental justice. Through One Roof, the Kraken have sought the advice of experts in these three areas and partnered with YouthCare, an organization working to end youth homelessness, as well as health care, technology and environmental groups to fight climate change and alleviate the effects in the region.

It would take a separate story to list all the initiatives the club is taking on through the One Roof Foundation. Professional and high-level sports teams always have a charitable foundation, but it's rare that teams take on polarizing issues.

Some fans might say hockey teams don't belong in politics, but the Kraken view these as pressing community issues. If their mission is to make the surrounding area better, then these are items they need to tackle. They're doing so by consulting with experts, partnering with community organizations and homeless shelters, holding neighborhood cleanups and building a sustainable venue in Climate Pledge Arena, a zero-waste, zero-carbon arena that utilizes renewable energy technologies and water conservation systems. Climate Pledge Arena is committed to being free of single-use plastics by 2024.

"It's reflective of the broad community," Horita said. "People who aren't historically part of the hockey culture, or maybe live in the neighborhood south of town, they still are part of what we're doing. Their work is there or their neighbor's work is there."

The NHL has a green initiative, and other teams are starting to launch programs aimed at racial equality. The New Jersey Devils' Buy Black program provides marketing services and resources to Black-owned businesses in Newark and surrounding areas in New Jersey. But 2020 prompted many teams to try to look for ways to be more diverse and inclusive. They were trying to catch up, and many didn't have the resources or the knowledge to do so.

By making these values an organizational priority from day one, the Kraken have created their own culture. There were no preconceived notions of how a team should run, no expectations of hiring from the same pool of candidates and no one in their way to tell them otherwise.

The club believes these initiatives will break down some of the barriers that exist between the established hockey community and new fans from all parts of the region.

             

The On-Ice Product

If you think the Kraken will have instant success like the Vegas Golden Knights during their inaugural season, you might want to temper your expectations. According to one industry source, they're taking a longer-term approach than the Golden Knights did. Some were underwhelmed by the expansion draft selections and the lack of side deals, but the Kraken have the cap space to improve over the coming months and years.

"Look how much cap space they have available. They're not locking themselves into bad contracts," a former NHL analyst told B/R. "I don't love the Alex Wennberg contract, but they had an opportunity to take Carey Price. They had an opportunity to get Vladimir Tarasenko. They had an opportunity to take any number of guys, and they specifically said, 'I don't care how good they are. We're not taking them because we're not locking ourselves into contracts we won't be able to move.'"

But they have the attention of the rest of the league based on how they are running their hockey operations department and who is working underneath general manager Ron Francis.

Head coach Dave Hakstol was considered a masterful builder of teams when he coached the University of North Dakota. They have analysts who have worked in several sports, and they are using data in ways other NHL teams are not.

"With most teams, it's the GM that has a vision for what he sees on the ice," the analyst said. "It's usually big, tough, mean boy go boom, whereas with the Kraken, it's, we need to be fast because we get good, young players that have good zone-entry numbers, good zone-denial numbers we need, like that kind of thing. And then that kind of jives with Francis' vision of like a young team that plays that fast, good defense, which also jives with Hakstol.

"From the top, right on down, everybody is aligned. You don't have a coach that disagrees with the GM, you don't have the analytics department that disagrees with the coach that disagrees with the GM. Everybody works in lockstep. And then, when the pro scouts go out—from what I can see in talking to people—they are looking for people that fit the strategy and the vision that Seattle has built."

And that's where it all comes together: This team stands for something

The Kraken can use hockey for good. They can grow the game in the Pacific Northwest. They can use the platform provided by their on-ice product to bring awareness and attention to the core values they are implementing each day when their employees go to work.

Can one team change an entrenched culture in the sport? Maybe not right away, but many in Seattle buy into the belief that it's possible, especially if the team wins a Stanley Cup.

"[The Kraken want] to be a leader [in] diversity and be at the forefront of all of everything going on, so I do think that they can make some waves," Brown said. "I don't know everything going on, but there's definitely change that can be made."

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