You can see all the telltale signs – sunken eyes from staying up too late watching flashy videos, the proliferation of people wearing Kraken gear at the grocery store or gas station, and the indescribable but undeniable combination of anticipation and anxiety hanging over the entire region on game day.
My own daughter, who a month ago couldn’t tell a puck from a pancake, is suddenly peppering our family texting chains with, “It’s Kraken hockey, baby!” and “Hey, hey, what are you saying?”
Yes, a classic case of playoff fever has broken out, a contagion last seen at this point in October, when the Mariners snapped their 20-year playoff drought.
Some would call it “Bandwagonitis”, to which I would have two lines:
- First, there’s no stereotypical “bandwagon” when it comes to a franchise that’s been playing games for just two seasons. The phrase “fans on the bandwagon” refers to the phenomenon of people who previously ignored a team during tough times and jumped on board when things were going well. In that case, I’d just call them “new fans,” because a struggling inaugural season doesn’t qualify as hard times.
- Second, what’s wrong with bandwagon fans, anyway? I would maintain that bandwagon fans have a bad reputation. It’s human nature to gravitate to a team when it’s at its best and playing exhilarating and meaningful games. Not everyone can be a hardcore fanatic who is willing to endure soulless and weak seasons. It’s the team’s duty to build a team and run a season that compels the fans to come on board.
And that’s what the Kraken did, in a very short time. The Vegas Golden Knights provided a distorted view of what an expansion team can expect to accomplish from the start. Reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in their freshman year was an outlier, not a roadmap. The fact that the Kraken qualified for the second round in their second year is a notable achievement in itself.
The Kraken also had to work harder than the Golden Knights to carve out a place for themselves in Seattle’s sports consciousness. It’s a packed sports market, even with the Sonics a decade and a half gone, and standing out from the cheering crowd isn’t easy. Especially for a team with no history competing in a sport that, while building a strong niche following over the years, hasn’t existed here at the major league level for, oh, a century.
The Golden Knights, conversely, were the first major professional team in Las Vegas history (beating the WNBA Aces by one season and the NFL Raiders by three). They thus inherited a fiercely grateful and loyal fan base that completely bought into it from day one – before the puck ever fell. The fan response was a legitimate phenomenon, bolstered by the fact that the Knights far exceeded anyone’s expectations by becoming not only the first NHL expansion team to make the playoffs since the league expanded in 1967. , but finishing on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.
I went to Vegas in 2018, their first season, to do a story on how the Knights took over the city with their glitzy game presentation.
“It’s really unique,” general manager George McPhee told me. “It’s a market that really needed its first major professional sports team. And they supported him. They’re having fun here, it’s a very loud crowd. We’re in Vegas, so our gaming operation must be big.
The Kraken mimicked the garish play operation, but because the teams understood how Vegas handled the expansion draft, they failed to achieve instant success on the ice, ending their first season at the bottom of the Pacific Division with a 27-49 record. But perhaps this lack of instant gratification has made their current success all the more enjoyable. Nothing increases sports passion like previous suffering – even just a pinch of a year.
“We’re bringing in new fans every day,” Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said as the Stanley Cup playoffs began. “I think there are people who haven’t seen us play, who are now going to see us play in a wonderful tournament, the best tournament there is, the Stanley Cup playoffs. So that’s obviously a very good thing for what we’re doing. And it’s great to bring in new fans. But the best part is rewarding the fans who have been there since day one.
The Kraken sold out its first season, but empty seats prevailed as the lack of success became apparent. Launching the team in the teeth of a global pandemic meant players weren’t able to do the kind of in-person community building that helps forge relationships. Those restrictions have eased for Year 2, and it’s been easier for them to bond with fans – not to mention the team bonds that were compromised in 2021-22.
“Everyone was taking care of it,” said general manager Ron Francis. “But it was probably a bit more difficult for us, just in the sense that we had all these players trying to learn a new system, their families are new to the area. We had a bunch of different team events planned to start the season, and we weren’t able to do any of them because of the COVID surges and the events that were happening. We couldn’t do anything during the season.
Francis added that it wasn’t until the start of training camp this season that the Kraken were able to hold true team function.
“You’re trying to learn a system, you’re trying to learn each other, you’re trying to learn the city – not being able to have that camaraderie at some different team functions to move that process along a bit faster n It was definitely not beneficial to us,” Francis said.
All went well for the Kraken in its second year, as the team came together on the ice with an exciting and successful season. For fans, the Kraken has grown from a collection of disparate hockey players into a team — and an engaging, likeable team.
Throw all that concoction into the most intense playoff environment imaginable, and you have the makings of a shiny, shiny bandwagon. And no one should take that as an insult.