First time, longtime hockey fan

This week, for the first time in my life, I felt a real letdown watching an NHL team get eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. I’ve been watching hockey off and on (mostly off) since the mid-1990s, and have seen the final moments of plenty of playoff series. I usually just liked watching the winners celebrate their victory, but it wasn’t until now that I was more invested in the losers.

That’s because, for the first time, the side that got eliminated was my favorite hockey team. And that’s because, for the first time, I have a favorite hockey team.

In their second year of existence, the Seattle Kraken made it to the NHL postseason. Seattle upset the reigning champion Colorado Avalanche in the first round, before falling to the Dallas Stars in the second. Despite coming up a few minutes short of the Western Conference final, the Kraken can consider Year 2 a rousing success that no one really saw coming. (Prior to the season, The Hockey News slotted Seattle 26th in its NHL power rankings.)

The Kraken are my team; kinda since Day 1 when it was announced in 2018 that my hometown was getting an expansion NHL franchise, pretty much since 2020 when the Kraken name and logo were unveiled, and undeniably since 2021 when the puck dropped for their first official game.

It’s been an exhilarating learning experience rooting for the Kraken, both brand new and refreshingly innocent. I’m not a total hockey novice, but I don’t know nearly as much about it as I do my other go-to sports. I didn’t grow up in a hockey town. From childhood into adulthood, the NHL had very few Black players and even fewer Muslim players to whom I could identify and relate. (Which, as much as some may not want to admit, matters.) On the knowledge scale of all sports, hockey is maybe in my top 10, but definitely closer to 10th than fifth. In addition to those occasional Stanley Cup finales I’d watched over the years, my hockey history consists of playing NHL ’95 on the Sega Genesis; catching SportsCenter highlights; biannual vows of “OK, I’m gonna get into hockey this season” that failed like Jan. 1 resolutions as soon as the NBA and college basketball got going; and knowing just enough about the NHL to get by in some of the various sports media jobs I’ve held.

And here’s the thing about careers in sports media: Those of us who do it probably got into it because we loved sports growing up, and in some form or fashion kept that childlike, idealist vision of sports preserved a little longer than the average person. At least long enough to not only decide we wanted to work in this field, but also to stick with it through school and even after we found out it might not make us rich. (I always wondered: Think of how many little kids say they want to be veterinarians when they grow up because they love animals. Now think of how many adults actually become veterinarians. Something changes in you when you get older.) At some point in your sports media career, though, you get jaded. Not always a bitter, overly negative type of jaded; but once you take a lap or two behind the curtain of the sports business, you can lose that sense of awe and wonderment that first attracted you to sports. You’re not just a fan anymore; you’re part of the machine.

So with the Kraken, this has been the most pure sports fan experience I’ve had in a long time. I was too much of a contrarian as a kid to automatically root for every one of my hometown teams, but I latched onto the Kraken from the beginning for no reason other than they were Seattle’s team. And I don’t know any of the player’s salaries. I don’t know the team’s salary cap situation. I don’t know the rest of the league well enough to spend time spinning made-up trades and wishful free agent signings to improve wherever the Kraken are weak on the ice. I don’t have a fantasy hockey team. I’m not knowledgeable enough to second-guess the coach. I’m just following the action, being impressed by the talent, and hoping good things happen for the guys with the “S” on their chests.

I don’t know how long it’ll stay that way. The more I learn about the game of hockey, the more I’ll learn about the business of hockey. It’s inevitable. At some point, I’ll probably start to think I know better than the Kraken’s coach, GM, and ownership. I’ll start to feel like just making it to the playoffs isn’t good enough. Even though I’ve never laced up a pair of ice skates, at some point I might start criticizing NHL players as if I’ve actually played hockey a day in my life.

But for now, I’ll be blissfully ignorant and just enjoy the ride. Except for those playoff losses. Now I know from firsthand experience, those really hurt.

Categories: NHL

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