Savor the cult heroism, Seattle Kraken

Sports

I don’t care if the Seattle Kraken are good or bad. I only care that they’re weird.

The Vegas Golden Knights warped our expectations for how an NHL expansion team should perform in its first season, having leveraged the league’s new advantageous draft rules to maximum compensatory effect. None of us figured the Kraken for a Stanley Cup finalist like the inaugural Knights were, but most felt they’d be better than the .300 points percentage team that entered into action on Wednesday night. Or, at least one with a better team save percentage than the Arizona Coyotes.

Their lack of early success has been … kind of a bummer? Which is a shame, because the first season of an expansion team should be a joyous journey of small victories, embarrassing mishaps and those promising moments that portend a brighter future. It’s like freshman year at college: a time to take chances and explore new things, knowing there’s plenty of time to eventually earn that degree while silently praying that none of that exploration ends up on social media.

Even with their success, Vegas got bizarre. They had that entire arena experience, with the neon-lit drum line, the Medieval Times (dinner and tournament!) pregame show. They had that “Golden Misfits” vibe that fueled them. Their winning and their weirdness made them cult sensations in a crowded entertainment market.

Like anything that achieves cult status, there also cult heroes. For the Knights, it was Marc-Andre Fleury: King of the Misfits, the beaming smile behind the goalie mask on billboards and someone whose play thrilled local hockey fans and helped create new ones.

Every expansion team has them. So who are those cult heroes for the Kraken after just over a month of existence?

“There are so many Brandon Tanev jerseys here, you wouldn’t believe it,” said John Barr, the Seattle fan behind Sound of Hockey.

Why has Tanev, a seven-year veteran previously with the Winnipeg Jets and the Pittsburgh Penguins, become the most popular player on the Kraken?

“There are a whole bunch of reasons, actually,” said Patrick M, a Kraken fan found on Twitter at @generationxwing. “It all starts with the ‘oh my god, I’ve seen a ghost’ photo. That’s what first endeared him.”

Tanev’s cult status started with the headshot. The one he took while playing for the Penguins, bulging his eyes widely with a concerned look on his face. His explanation at the time: “I did actually see a ghost. It was walking behind the gentleman who was taking our pictures. Kinda caught me off guard.”

When Tanev was drafted by the Kraken, he was one of the players who showed up in Seattle for the roster unveiling. The photo was shown to the crowd, to rolling laughter.

“We’re a quirky set of people up here. Anyone that looks like he’s a member of a grunge band in a mugshot is going to endear himself quickly,” Patrick M said.

Tanev produced a sequel with his Kraken headshot. “I had to come out and do something a little more extraordinary,” he said. Suddenly, doing “The Tanev” was a thing around the hockey world, from youth teams to friend and former Penguins teammate Kasperi Kapanen.

Hockey cult icons need an on-ice component to their popularity. Despite having the 16th-most ice time among skaters, Tanev was the fifth-leading scorer on the Kraken through 15 games, with six goals and two assists.

“He’s a wrecking-ball player. He’s got that balance of grit and skill, and who can put the energy in the team,” Patrick M said. “As stupid as it is to say, it’s the ‘blue-collar stuff.’ You’re looking for someone to latch on to. We don’t have those high-skills guys, so the next step down is the guy who goes full-tilt.”

Tanev’s popularity on and off the ice has manifested in gear sales. In September, Tanev had one of the best-selling jerseys among all Kraken players in ecommerce, ranking right with established names like Philipp Grubauer and winger Jordan Eberle. Fanatics, the NHL’s official ecommerce partner, said Tanev has the third-highest-selling Kraken jersey since the start of the season, and one of the top 15 best-selling jerseys in the NHL.

“That’s a tough one for me to explain,” Tanev told Sportsnet during a recent broadcast. “Happy to have the jersey sales. I think the jerseys themselves are extraordinary. I think they’ve done a great job with them. I’m fortunate to be up there with some of the top players in the league. We’ll take it.”

On Breaking T, a T-shirt site that has a partnership with the NHLPA, Tanev has the most popular Seattle Kraken shirt. Not surprisingly, it’s a photo of his headshot, with the words “Release the Tanev.”

Morgan Geekie doesn’t have a shirt there yet, but the 23-year-old Seattle forward is also a contender for cult hero status, as a certified goofball. The kind of player who does an interview with Geek Wire because of his last name. (Geekie: “It’s not every day that half your name is in a worldwide technology [news site].”)

He went viral while with the Carolina Hurricanes when he inserted the phrase “you can’t out-pizza the Hut” into a post-practice interview, after some teammates bet him that he couldn’t sneak in the Pizza Hut catchphrase. When asked about it as a member of the Kraken, Geekie said, “I can show you my [Pizza Hut] gold card, [but] I don’t carry it anymore. I got a new wallet.”

He’d probably challenge Tanev for expansion cult hero status if he had more than two goals in his first 15 games with Seattle. As it stands, Tanev’s the man.

“He’s leaned into it. He’s a maniac on the ice, no bucket in warm-ups, his hair’s all wacko, gives some non-traditional interviews. And he’s playing well! So when you put that all together you have a cult hero. Especially when he also cares so much,” said Barr. “I think he appeals to new fans. Look, they don’t know who Jared McCann is, and he’s close to being the best player on the team. But Tanev has reached out to the new fans. They know he’s a character.”

That’s the essential ingredient for an expansion cult hero: that connection with the fans.

Stu Grimson felt it from his first home game with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993-94, against the Detroit Red Wings and their legendary enforcer, the late Bob Probert. Grimson had fought him numerous times as part of the Chicago Blackhawks‘ battles with their “Chuck Norris Division” rivals from Detroit. The Red Wings annihilated Anaheim 7-2, but the crowd came alive late in the third period when Grimson and Probert renewed acquaintances.

“They were like, ‘OK, this is cool.’ We lost the first one, but they sure as hell got good value that night,” Grimson said. “We did what we could to make the game relevant, and to become a part of the fabric of that community, right out of the gate. What was really fun in those first two years was seeing fans start to appreciate the more subtle parts of the game.”

Grimson, nicknamed “The Grim Reaper” in his playing days, was one of the cult heroes of that first Ducks team, along with players like goalie Guy Hebert and forward Terry Yake.

“We had a lot of players that were used to having elite guys on their other teams that commanded all the attention. So when the spotlight was shown on these working-class players, we were happy to dive in and do whatever the organization asked of us,” Grimson said.

Like going to Disneyland, where the Disney-owned team was placed on a float for a parade down Main Street USA: The Grim Reaper, at the happiest place on Earth, waving to toddlers.

Years later, Grimson would play his final NHL season with the Nashville Predators, who were in their fourth season of existence but were very much still trying to build a fan base. Seeking that cult hero, they made Grimson their centerpiece signing in the summer of 2001, and put him on a private jet to Nashville.

“The fact that they’re flying in a fourth-line ham-and-egger for a press conference is astonishing enough. But then they loaded me up in a Winnebago, they dressed up their director of ticket sales as the Grim Reaper, and he leads me into the press conference. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is a different market.’ They were at a stage of their history where someone like me was a featured attraction,” he said.

The Predators also put up a massive billboard of Grimson in his gear in one of the most high-traffic areas in downtown Nashville, something he said “was absolutely comical to see.”

Ron Tugnutt felt a little comical, too, when he became an expansion cult hero with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000-01.

The memorably monikered goalie was a member of two different first-season teams: drafted by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993-94 and signed as a free agent by the Jackets. In fact, he earned the first win for both of those franchises — a distinction he was worried could be threatened if Marc-Andre Fleury had ended up with the Kraken instead of the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason.

Heading into that inaugural season for the Blue Jackets, Tugnutt was a 33-year-old veteran coming off a notable playoff run with the Penguins. Columbus wanted him to be a front-facing talent for the team, someone who connect the franchise with new fans.

“I have to credit the Blue Jackets front office for being creative in getting us out there before the season started,” he said. “Like when I started doing commercials about running for President of the United States.”

Sorry, what?

Before he ever played a game for the Blue Jackets, Tugnutt was walking through local parks in his full goalie gear — minus the skates — giving “campaign speeches” to the citizens of Columbus.

“I was in tears laughing when the idea brought it to me,” he said. “I walked through farm fields, flipping up my mask to talk to farmers. Patted cows with my goalie equipment on, which wasn’t easy — I just kept looking at my gear getting muck and stuff on it. But it was a legitimate presidential campaign that was shown all over Columbus.”

According to The Hockey News, Tugnutt actually earned 12 votes as a write-in candidate in the 2000 presidential election.

The Blue Jackets had a good run in their first season, remaining in the playoff race until the last month. That success came at an advantageous time for the franchise, because Ohio State’s football team — which otherwise sucks up every last bit of media and fan attention — was in the midst of a three-season valley in between first-place finishes in the Big 10.

That’s been one of the challenges for the Kraken this season: Getting attention while the Seattle Seahawks are still playing meaningful games.

“I don’t think it’s fully in the sports lexicon here yet. The Seahawks still dominate in the media here, and frankly there’s not a lot of people that know about hockey here,” said Barr. “So you have die-hard fans that are chomping at the bit for more, and a new fan base that’s not getting a lot from the media outlets here.”

That’s why expansion team cult heroes like Tanev and Geekie are important. Their connection to the fans isn’t tied to wins or losses. It’s about effort, charisma, being a part of the community. And perhaps above all, it’s about that glorious weirdness that makes the first season of a franchise’s existence so endearing.

“There’s not as much pressure on an expansion team. You can kind of relax. There’s a honeymoon. You get one or two years, and then they expect you to start winning,” said Tugnutt, who said he loved his time on the expansion teams. “It kept me in the league longer. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I think you asked most people on expansion teams, they’d tell you they loved it. I hope the Seattle Kraken are having a great time.”

He also has some advice for the players who are in the position now that he was in back in 2000-01:

“I’d tell the Kraken to enjoy it. You’re building relationships with each other and building relationships in the community. You guys are the pioneers in leading this team into the NHL.”

Now that’s a campaign speech.

Jersey Fouls

From Sin City:

What an absolute insult to the only true No. 1 in Golden Knights history — goalie Dylan Ferguson — to have his jersey number repurposed for a crummy commercial.


Three players I’m a little worried about

1. Kirill Kaprizov, F, Minnesota Wild. Kirill The Thrill has been anything but this season. He has 11 points in 15 games, but only three of those were goals — and he’s generated a paltry 6.1% shooting percentage after shooting 17.2% in his rookie of the year campaign last season. Maybe that carousel of centers has something to do with it.

2. Jeff Petry, D, Montreal Canadiens. As NHL Watcher notes, “Jeff Petry has not scored in 43 straight games dating back to last year’s regular season and playoffs. Has one goal in his last 66 games.” He has two points in 18 games this season as well. The Montreal Gazette writes: “Petry is not having a good year and that could be because he is playing through injuries, and he is being asked to play a larger role in the absence of Shea Weber and his partner from last season, Joel Edmundson.”

3. Philipp Grubauer, G, Seattle Kraken. With his loss to the Blackhawks on Wednesday, the Kraken’s prized free agent has now lost four straight games and has given up three or more goals in each one. He has a minus-12.1 goals saved above average, and has cost his team over two wins thus far. If Seattle’s going to make a move up the standings, it needs a version of Philipp Grubauer it’s currently not seeing.


Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Travis Green

With all the ire in Vancouver targeted at GM Jim Benning and the owner who’s enabled him during this disastrous season, coach Travis Green continues to skate by without shouldering his share of the criticism. That’s not to say that roster construction doesn’t play a huge role in their demise, as three out of every four transactions from Benning are somewhat inexplicable to a neutral observer. But tactically, this team can’t create off the rush, and Green has had a points percentage over .500 only once in five seasons.

I still think total regime change is the answer in Vancouver, but there’s a case to be made that seeing what a new coach does with this roster — Bruce Boudreau, anybody? — should precede the general manager being dismissed. A flimsy case, but a case nonetheless.

Loser: Canucks’ penalty kill

Any hopes of the Canucks rallying this season will be subverted by a penalty kill that’s last in the NHL, at 60.3%. They’ve given up at least one power-play goal in 10 straight games. They gave up two or more power-play goals in eight of those 10 games. Absolutely atrocious.

Winner: Shiny heads

Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights: You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome! Seriously, these lids are sweet, and more teams should have versions of them.

Loser: Headaches

The Ottawa Senators had to postpone three games because of a COVID-19 outbreak on their team. Players and coaches are still missing time because of positive tests.

All systems remain “go” for the NHL to attend the 2022 Beijing Games. The only possible reason the players wouldn’t go would be the COVID-19 situation over there, or because the league has too many games to make up over here. We’re far from either scenario at the moment, but the Ottawa situation is a reminder that we’re not in the clear yet.

Winner: Alex DeBrincat

The Blackhawks forward tallied a Gordie Howe hat trick on Wednesday night, with his fourth career fight and first bout since Nov. 2019. “A superstar in the making,” Patrick Kane said after the win against the Kraken, before correcting himself: “Already a superstar.”

Loser: Player safety

Brendan Gallagher claimed that Barclay Goodrow did “some acting” on this sucker punch, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sucker punch. He was fined $2,500 for the punch. Dylan Larkin got a game suspension after punching a player who boarded him. Gallagher deserved at least that.

Winner: Utica Comets

Congrats to the Utica Comets, the minor league affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, who tied an AHL record for longest winning streak to start a season with their 11th straight win, tying the mark set by the 1984-85 Rochester Americans.

Loser: New York Islanders

The Islanders are finally making their debut at the spiffy UBS Arena on Saturday, and their fans aren’t even going to recognize them. Who is this team with the .462 points percentage after 13 road games? This Lou Lamoriello roster that’s 30th in team offense? This Barry Trotz team that’s 17th in team defense? The hype locally for the opening of the new barn is a bit muted because of it.

Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Congrats to John Tortorella and his new robot friend, whom he met on this week’s edition of The Point:

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