The Kraken’s Kyle Boyd brings rollerball to Judkins Park.
I started watching hockey when I was eight. My dad would sit on one end of the faded blue sectional in our living room with his feet propped up, and I’d curl into a corner on the other side. During commercials, I’d hazard the occasional question, but most of the time we didn’t talk. He was engrossed in the game, and I was too busy trying to keep up with the puck as it pinged between sticks and rimmed around the boards.
Growing up, I rarely saw my dad on weekdays. He worked long hours some 20 miles away from our home in San Jose, so breakfast and bedtime often came and went without him. On the rare occasions he did return in time to say goodnight, I’d revel in the special tradition he reserved for me. “Bào qĭlái” he’d singsong in Mandarin—“tuck you in”—before frenetically bundling me up under the covers. I viewed Saturday and Sunday as opportunities for more. After all, scratchy beard kisses before bed hardly counted as quality time. During weekend lulls when he’d flick on the TV to relax with whatever sport happened to be airing, I’d clamber onto the couch cushion next to him, happy to be an interloper in his attempt at parental relaxation.
In the early ’90s, when I was a kid, that sport was often hockey. The National Hockey League had embarked on a “Sunbelt expansion,” adding five teams, including my hometown San Jose Sharks, over just three years. Television networks played regular-
season games six times a week. Disney’s The Mighty Ducks spawned two sequels and the name for the NHL’s 26th franchise in Anaheim. In 1998, the league launched its Hockey Is for Everyone youth program, a bid to encourage inclusivity and diversity in a sport dominated by white men on the ice and in the crowd. The National Hockey League was growing up and, weekend after weekend, I was too.
I learned the rules, the rivalries, the players. Soon I was watching hockey, not only to beg time with my dad but also to catch the filthy dekes and body-crushing checks. For the skill and the speed and the sprawled-out saves. For the bearded men relinquishing their blood, sweat, and teeth, all for the right to hoist a 34-pound trophy above their heads. Hockey itself became something that mattered, something that made a little Asian girl growing up in California feel like she belonged. Now some three decades later, living in Seattle with two daughters of my own, it’s an indelible part of me.
My conversion to the church of hockey isn’t unique but it’s increasingly rare. The NHL’s arduous growth spurt of my formative years has been saddled with growing pains, stagnated by player lockouts, and erased from ESPN for 15 years by a TV-deal dustup. The target market doesn’t match the shifting demographics of North America. Of the “Big Four” sports leagues in the country, the NHL generates the lowest revenue and is the least diverse, with recent incidents of racism and misogyny festering into public view.
Which brings us to the Seattle Kraken. After a years-long crusade, one that culminated in 10,000 season ticket commitments in 12 minutes, the NHL granted our city its 32nd franchise. When the puck drops at Climate Pledge Arena on October 23, it’ll be a manifestation of pure devotion from hockey fans in this town, the homegrown and the re-rooted. Fortuitously for the league, the new team may illuminate the path to a more inclusive future—or at the very least, an emergency exit from a PR nightmare. The Kraken front office has leaned hard into Seattle’s oft-touted progressive identity with a slate of notable hires and early outreach efforts in nontraditional hockey communities. But in a league that keeps circling the rink on diversity and getting nowhere closer to the goal, can the Kraken prove that hockey is, truly, for everyone?
As hockey devotees go, John Barr is a late convert. He didn’t watch a lick of the sport until he was 20, favoring baseball while growing up in the Oakland of the ’80s. Yet there’s Barr in a photo, grinning next to Seattle Kraken minority owner Jerry Bruckheimer. And in another, presenting Ron Francis, the team’s general manager, with a commemorative hockey stick. And with National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman at the foot of the Space Needle. On December 5, 2018, the day after the league officially granted a hockey franchise to Seattle, the Twitter account of the soon-to-be-named Kraken posted a picture of Barr suited up in black-and-orange hockey gear out on the ice. “Congratulations, John,” the accompanying tweet read. “We owe you all the stick taps.”
Barr isn’t ashamed to admit it; the message nearly made him cry. “It was incredible to be acknowledged at that level,” he says. “I only did a little bit.” By “little bit” he means founding an email listserv called NHL to Seattle, which he parlayed into a blog and community movement that many credit with bringing a professional team here. “John really was the guy that gave it the big push,” says Tim Pipes, owner of the Angry Beaver hockey bar in Greenwood.
At 48, Barr looks friendly and familiar in the “wait, have we met?” sort of way. In those hockey photo cameos, his grin skews just shy of goofy, giddiness schooled into restraint. Barr had already joined the hockey fold when he moved to Seattle in 2004 and found the city teeming with the sport. There were adult rec leagues, youth programs, and the Seattle Thunderbirds, a junior team in the Western Hockey League. But there was no NHL. The incongruity astounded him. “I had a love affair with the game and the sport and just was like, I don’t understand why this city doesn’t have an NHL team,” he says. “And so, you know, I started researching.”
A city needs three things to get an NHL team: an owner, an available team (new or stolen from another city), and an arena. Barr figured he couldn’t manifest a billionaire or a franchise, so he focused on willing a suitable venue into existence. Seattle had hockey fans, sure, but they weren’t nearly as visible or coordinated as boisterous Seahawks followers or the anguished Sonics faithful. In his mind, local hockey “needed some kind of grassroots movement and awareness to bring people together.” He was willing to be that force.
When rumors of a new arena development in SoDo got die-hards speculating, Barr took to his blog to decode the legalese and city council hoops. A competing KeyArena proposal would surface as a front-runner and shift Barr’s role to figurehead. He hosted events at the Angry Beaver hockey bar, organized rallies, and pleaded with fellow fans to attend city council meetings and hearings. For every 15 people he called, one or two would show up, but Barr remained undeterred. “I felt like that’s what needed to be done,” he says, “to make sure city officials knew there was a hockey community here and that they knew we existed.”
What exactly he’s invested in NHL to Seattle is hard to quantify, but Barr estimates it’s over $40,000 of his own money and what amounts to “thousands and thousands of hours” each year. In 2014, he quit his day job as an Xbox program manager and switched to part-time consulting so he could more thoroughly devote himself to the cause.
Today, Barr remains attuned to the needs of local hockey fans. He tactfully spun NHL to Seattle into the more versatilely named Sound of Hockey, an online water cooler of sorts full of geeky analysis, insider references, and nuanced commentary imparted via blog post and a weekly podcast. But Barr still makes it a point to speak to hockey newcomers, the unbaptized and curious who don’t know where to start. The people like 20-year-old him and eight-year-old me. “There’s a base here of well-informed hockey people that want more information and to understand a little bit more of the nuances,” he says. “And then there are some that are like, ‘Oh, I’m trying to study up and learn about the game.’ So we’re providing that opportunity for them to help understand hockey, the Kraken, and more broadly the NHL.” This time, though, Barr isn’t the only one proselytizing.
On a summer weekend in 2019, Kyle Boyd was thinking about the Civil War. The 29-year-old Lakeside High School teacher had driven 45 minutes from his home in North Seattle to skate at Renton’s Sno-King Ice Arena. Having grown up in Minnesota, a state that reveres hockey the way Texas does its football, he found himself missing the ice. Seattle proper was woefully lacking in the way of rinks, and so he made the trek south. Boyd mentally plotted his next history lesson, weaving between birthday party groups and colt-like beginners, when a stranger complimented his skating abilities. Through small talk, the two discovered they knew someone in common: his dad, Dr. Joel Boyd, the first Black team doctor in the NHL. The stranger was Tod Leiweke, president and CEO of the Seattle Kraken and Boyd’s future boss.
When you’re raised in winter-worn states (or any part of Canada, for that matter), hockey devotion is pretty much preordained. Boyd learned to skate at age four and played varsity hockey in high school. Now as the Kraken’s director of fan development, his job is to welcome more faithful into the fold. The ones from nontraditional hockey families whose cultural references lean more Space Jam or, say, Friday Night Lights than The Mighty Ducks.
Boyd’s role isn’t unique to Seattle—American NHL teams generate youth hockey participation surges in their respective cities—but his approach to programming is purposefully different. “How do we begin to not only introduce them to the sport but make those fans feel welcome into our fandom and community?” he muses with the earnest tone of someone used to speaking in a classroom. “It’s not just the invitation but making everyone feel like they belong. It can’t be an afterthought.”
Hockey, with its expensive gear and requisite rinks, has more requirements than sports where a ball and patch of open space will usually do. So Boyd’s early efforts go the exposure-therapy route: school-age rollerball programs to reach socioeconomically disadvantaged kids where they are, subsidized hockey programs at the Kraken Community Iceplex and affiliate rinks to welcome underrepresented communities. He talks about eventually hosting events where parents can participate. But once these new fans are in, the “making everyone feel like they belong” part? That can’t be solved with a pair of skates.
Obviously, this isn’t just a Seattle problem. White fans make up around 77 percent of the NHL fan base. Hockey beats out golf and even NASCAR in terms of homogeneity. Like other professional sports, around 70 percent of fans are male. The stats get even more skewed when you look at the athletes themselves; 95 percent of NHL players are white. There is only one openly gay player, prospect Luke Prokop, who came out earlier this year; the dearth is common among professional men’s sports.
Sometimes this status quo spills over in ugly ways: Rangers fans once filled Madison Square Garden with homophobic chants and booed the New York City Gay Hockey Association. During a 2011 exhibition game in Ontario, someone tossed a banana at Black right winger Wayne Simmonds. Chicago fans taunted forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is also Black, with chants of “basketball, basketball, basketball” at a game in 2018. And after a miscue that cost the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs earlier this year, Indigenous player Ethan Bear was inundated with racist comments online.
None of this seems to jibe with the demographic trends of our country, where nearly half of Generation Z identifies as nonwhite. The league and sport have work to do to match this shift, notes Mari Horita, the Kraken’s vice president of community engagement and social impact. “It’s a business imperative, a moral imperative.” Thus far, the NHL has stumbled. In 2020, a group of seven current and former players—six are Black, one is Asian—described the league’s efforts on the anti-racism and inclusion front as “performative,” opting instead to form their own independent diversity alliance. Of the major men’s sports leagues in the U.S., the NHL is the only one that hasn’t shared data with the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, although Horita notes the league plans to do so starting this fall. When other leagues postponed play in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020, hockey games continued before halting the next day. “The NHL is always last to the party on these topics,” Matt Dumba, a Filipinx Canadian defenseman, griped to a Vancouver radio station last year.
And when it comes to women and hockey culture, just take the subject of female broadcasters—and read fans’ unfiltered opinions on YouTube: “Lots of girly talk.... Grade? F-,” read an unsolicited review. One keyboard crusader dismissed them as “#proof that men are waaaay better sports announcers,” while another projected, “What’s next? Pink uniforms?” Fans and TV commentators mock players by likening them to women, calling veteran winger Corey Perry “Katy Perry” and the now-retired Sedin twins “Thelma and Louise.” When asked by a Sporting News reporter whether he considered the “Katy Perry” quip sexist, league commissioner Gary Bettman dismissed that take as “overly literal,” responding with what amounted to a verbal shrug. Laissez-faire misogyny like that is pervasive in hockey culture, even in Seattle before the team existed.
On December 21, 2017, a Shelton-based romance author named Pamela Bowerman (pen name: Jami Davenport) registered “Seattle Sockeyes” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The NHL was still a year away from awarding a franchise to Seattle but the moniker, long beloved for its local leanings and adroit alliteration, surfaced among fans as a potential team name. It also happened to be the title of Bowerman’s popular romance series about a fictional Seattle hockey team, which first debuted in 2014.
Three years later, the series had nine books and accounted for 90 percent of her overall sales. But angry hockey fans didn’t see her trademark filing as a preemptive move to protect her work. Some called it a money grab; others mocked her books or ripped into the romance genre itself. “It’s like a joke to people, but this is a business,” Bowerman says. “These are books for women by women, and if men wrote these, I don’t think you’d see the same amount of disrespect I get.” The team ultimately went with a different name, whether to avoid legal entanglements or simply because they liked “Kraken” better, but the public scorn was telling.
It’s not easy to eradicate bigotry, to open minds, to make people willing to accept outsiders, even in a city that’s as supposedly progressive as ours. Boyd and Horita acknowledge that while the Kraken’s outreach efforts in marginalized communities are a start, they need league-wide coordination to rectify the larger issues plaguing the sport. They need a John Barr. To their credit, the franchise’s front office appears to be trying, if not to assume that role, at least to nudge things along. Nearly half of Kraken staffers are female and 25 percent are people of color, a pair of stats recited to me from memory by both Boyd and Horita, as well as senior vice president of marketing and communications Katie Townsend, who says that the team’s diverse hiring practices are “one of the areas that I’m most proud of.”
Even before the team had any players, the Kraken notched several notable firsts: the NHL’s first female pro scout (Cammi Granato), first Black announcer (Everett Fitzhugh), and first team to partner with the Black Girl Hockey Club. Its hockey programming prominently lists affiliations with local girls’ and women’s leagues, the Seattle Pride Hockey Association, sled hockey, and blind hockey. “Our players may not represent the diversity of the city,” Boyd admits of the Kraken roster, which had no players of color as of press time, “but we are an organization that’s becoming more attuned to the needs of our avid fans and prospective fans. Being diverse and inclusive is great and part of who we are, but it has to live through our actions.”
My dad and I eventually stopped watching games together. His work schedule normalized, and I became a teenager who no longer craved parental proximity. We found other things to do together, made new traditions. But my love for the game persists. I get a little jolt when I see a kindred stranger walking down the street in a jersey. I catch myself using hockey to earmark life milestones: sipping drinks at the Angry Beaver to celebrate buying my first home, watching my beloved Sharks reach the Stanley Cup Final when I was pregnant with my first child. I’ve already registered my four-year-old for skating lessons at the Kraken Iceplex. As my two young daughters grow up, I imagine we’ll watch hockey as a family, maybe in person or cozied up together on our couch. Maybe, just like that scrawny eight-year-old sitting with her dad, they’ll fall in love with the sport too. And if they do, I hope the league better reflects their generation. I hope it’s more inclusive and welcoming. I hope it’s one deserving of their love.