That’s Kraken Hockey

We moved out to Portland the year before Chicago won their last Stanley Cup. It was hard leaving a real sports city like Chicago to come to a smaller city where soccer reigns most of the year. Yes, the Trail Blazers play here, but trust me, Portland, it’s just not the same: Chicago breathes sports, with two MLB teams, an NFL team, and an original six NHL team — plus all the collegiate sports at Northwestern, UIC and DePaul.

Living in Chicago during a Cup run was intense. Tim worked downtown during the first Cup win of the modern era, and “went to work” on the day of the parade. While he usually took the bus from the train station, he opted to walk along with the parade that day, along with two million hockey fans. The hard part, he said, was crossing Michigan Avenue, with his office one block from the stage for the celebration. It took him 45 minutes just to cross the street to his building.

See those lamp posts on either side of the street?

That distance took him 45 minutes.

Tim was in Portland when the Hawks won their second Cup. I took my daughter to the second Cup parade, which was on a blazing-hot June day in another throng of humanity. The players were drunk off their asses, Chicago’s special events coordinators failed to make the event *actually* accessible, but we whooped and hollered and drank in the celebration and went home exhausted and happy.

Leaving that sports-centric environment took some adjusting, but I settled into a more humane hockey-watching schedule from August through June.

Oh, you thought the hockey season ran from October to April? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA no. In my house, hockey season begins in August with training camp and preseason games, and continues through June no matter who makes the playoffs. We get two months off in the summer during which Tim invariably tunes into old games that are being replayed just to stave off his cravings.

Now again, I grew up in a sports household. With three boys and me playing sports, we represented baseball, basketball, track and softball players, and baseball/basketball/football fans. I learned how to keep a baseball scorecard when I was 8, tracked MLB box scores all through college and still have newspaper clippings from Cal Ripken, Jr.’s rookie season.

I was a fan from his first day in the league.

All of this is to say sports is a big part of my life. Moving to Portland, I feared it would be relegated to my past, or I would be forced to start watching soccer. I mean, I like naps well enough, but that’s not my idea of enjoying sports.

When Seattle was picked for an NHL expansion team, I was skeptical. There was no way an expansion team would capture my heart and loyalty the way a lifetime being a Chicago fan could. Certainly not in an area as unused to sports fanaticism as the Pacific Northwest. But I tagged along with Tim as usual as he waded into anticipation of a team to call his own. I cheered at the announcement of the team name–the Kraken–and the oceanic colors, which I far prefer over the black/red/yellow of Chicago.

The first year was a total wreck. A washout. The one player I really liked–Mark Giordano–was traded to Toronto at the end of the season. Good for Toronto–he’s great! But what were we left with? A listless, ineffective lineup that couldn’t find the puck if it was handed to them.

When this season started, I kept my expectations low and searched for another NHL team to call my own. I’d always liked the Habs, but Winnipeg is much closer, which makes it easier to watch games live. And then the Kraken started winning, oddly. A lot. They set an NHL record for road wins, with 8 straight on an 8-game road trip. They even matched an NHL record in a game against LA that totaled 17 points between them. These players could SCORE. And win! Local hockey was exciting again. For a while, the Kraken were leading the division.

Even the outrageously over-the-top corniness of John Forslund, who provides play-by-play commentary for Kraken games, became part of our vernacular. “That’s Kraken hockey!” he proclaimed after every goal and every win. I mean, the team’s two years old–do we REALLY know what Kraken hockey is yet?

But after a while, Forslund’s childlike enthusiasm wove into our growing belief in this team. That IS Kraken hockey.

We developed a game-watching ritual. My work often keeps me out until after the game starts, so I’d get home when the first period was just finishing, then we’d slap together a quick dinner and settle in for the second period. If we weren’t losing 3-0, we’d stay up for the final period. More often than not, we were staying up. And then wandering to bed talking about defensive wins or how the team was beating the opponent to every puck or how the Kraken had 10–no! 12–no! 15 players with 20 or more goals on the year. We’d lie in bed watching replays on Tim’s tablet and chuckling over our luck.

Suddenly, after two seasons of peeking through my hands trying not to hope, I have a team again.

Seattle earned me as a fan not just for their scoring or defense or depth, but because of their discipline. This internal fortitude shows up in their conditioning, when every player on the ice has jump left in their legs. It shows up in their even temper when they’re called for a penalty. It’s evident when opposing teams try to bait them into fights, or egg them into taking bad penalties.

Do the Kraken sometimes do stupid stuff? Sure. There have been a couple of dumb penalties here and there, and one completely outrageous boarding hit by Kraken forward Jordan Eberle during the playoffs against Colorado. Tim and other hockey fans may quibble about how the play evolved that led to that hit, but my position is unchanged; every player is responsible for their body and stick in every play. What Eberle did was dangerous and resulted in a frightening injury to the Avs player. Unacceptable.

The other way discipline shows up in this team is how they respond when things do not go well for them. Some teams will start picking fights on the ice to “bring energy” to the game, or they’ll let their emotions rule their behavior and get hooked like a mackerel into shoving matches that turn into on-ice brawls with their concomitant penalties. This team does not do that. With the exception of one hot-headed — for the Kraken — period against Colorado during the first round in which our leading scorer was boarded, I have yet to see the Kraken lose their composure.

Looks a little unhinged, doesn’t he.

I have a sneaking suspicion that head coach Dave Hakstol has somehow hypnotized the Kraken into this assuredness, a confidence and poise that emanates from every player at every turn. Hell, even the “hotheads” on the team largely stay out of trouble. Look at the stats for Brandon Tanev, who’s known as Turbo and poses for team photos like this.

Total penalty minutes? Forty four. Kraken’s player with the most penalties–Yanni Gourde–still doesn’t rise to anywhere near the top of the list. He may be a shit-disturber, but he’s not dirty. (ahem–Marchand.)

Statistics only tell part of any story. Watching this team go from a bunch of strangers who happen to occupy the ice together for 60 minutes to a bunch of athletes who work as a team has been magical. To a man, you can see that they stand in the same ethos of playing a clean, fast, powerful game, rising and falling as one.

That’s why I watch sports. Competition of any kind reveals who you are as a human being. Team sports on a national stage like the playoffs peels back the veneer and shows who the organization is as a whole.

Today, I am reveling in the feeling of my team beating all the odds and winning their first playoff series in team history. Sure, they’re only two years old, but it’s still historic. They weren’t even expected to make it to the playoffs, but they did. Then they weren’t expected to beat Colorado, but they did. And they were the first team in 20 years to score first in every game of the series, if such things matter to you. It’s a cute statistic, but meaningless in the long run. It’s certainly not a predictor of future success.

What I’m here for is a group that trusts each other, that has found a way to play this powerful game without giving in to their worst impulses. Teamwork is setting aside ego for the greater good, and every time a Kraken player glides away from an invitation to drop gloves, they have chosen that higher purpose over the satisfaction of throwing a punch.

I hope I don’t end up eating my words. I have been a sports fan for long enough to be aware of the fallibility of high-gloss organizations like Chicago (and Penn State, and Michigan State, and Olympic gymnastics coaches and trainers) and their willingness to intentionally conceal long-term abuse of a player.

For right now, resting on this first-round playoff series win, I believe. I have faith in this team, in the coach, and in their ability to grow together, as they did through that grueling seven-game series against Colorado. They became more than the sum of their parts. They showed what’s possible if you work hard as an individual and mutually agree to bring those skills to bear on a group endeavor without consideration for individual glory.

That’s Kraken hockey.

The Seattle Kraken play the Dallas Stars in a best-of-seven contest starting Tuesday, May 2.

Note: Injuries happen in every sport, but hockey can be especially brutal. I’ve watched in horror as players have taken a puck to the mouth, been sliced by skate blades, pushed into the supports holding up the wall of glass around the rink, dropped in the center of the ice by a knee-on-knee hit intended to sideline the best players on the opposition in the hopes that the hitter’s team can win. Full face cages could end some of that destruction, and would limit the ridiculous fights. I loathe violence in hockey. This game is is fast and powerful, and even when played completely free of fighting and dirty hits, holds the potential for career-ending injuries. There’s enough chance for a player to get hurt that I believe the goal should be avoiding injuries to every player on the ice at all times. We’re a long way away from that goal, but it’s my hope.

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