Excitement for hockey in Seattle reached an all-time high when it was announced the city would receive an NHL franchise in 2021.
When the Kraken opened its new, state-of-the-art Kraken Community Iceplex in September, the buzz for hockey reached new heights. In particular, adults who maybe had never tried the sport before flocked to sign up for the Kraken’s Learn to Play program.
“The Kraken starting just made so many people think, I want to get back into it, or they’re excited about the location of the new rink,” said Andy Cole, director, adult hockey at the Kraken Community Iceplex. “It kind of brought people out of the woodwork. We’re still limited due to COVID protocols to a certain extent, so I think there’s a whole bunch more that are going to jump in this summer and next season.”
Starting last fall, the number of adults trying Learn to Play was astronomical. Around 250 men and women, ages 22-65, have taken part in the program over the last five months.
In this current session, Cole figures there are about 120 participants.
“I imagine them going back to work and telling their friends and co-workers and family what they’re doing — word just spreading and more and more people wanting to give it a try,” Cole said.
There’s been such a demand from adults to pick up a stick and lace up their skates that the Learn to Play program has a “pretty healthy wait list” for people to sign up, Cole said. There aren’t enough coaches to meet the demand.
Cole and Kraken Community Iceplex director of youth hockey Marty Hlinka know that’s an exceptional problem to have.
“It’s been impressive,” Hlinka said. “Because I’m a hockey director and obviously on the side of the youth program, living in Minnesota, living in St. Louis, living in Buffalo, I was expecting a boom of kids coming in. I didn’t expect this many adults coming.”
In preparing to start the learn to play program, representatives with the Kraken Community Iceplex reached out to other newer expansion franchises, including the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Kraken folks went on field trips to cities in order to generate ideas on how it could best run its Learn to Play program.
“I think we were a little bit more of a hockey market than some of those other ones, too, so it’s not always comparing apples and apples,” Cole said. “I just always thought we were kind of in between — we’re not an established hockey market, but we weren’t the same as maybe some of the others. We’ve got a 100-year history of hockey and there’s always been hockey in some shape or form. There’s a lot of transplants from other cold-weathered areas like New England, New York, Michigan, etc.”
Graduating to the Adult League
The Kraken’s Learn to Play sessions generally run eight to 10 weeks and roll one after another.
Right now, the Kraken are running three sessions during the inaugural season, but Cole anticipates that will expand to four or possibly five sessions in future years.
Sessions last one hour but, according to Cole, some adults are so hungry for more hockey, they find supplemental opportunities to play. The Kraken also holds a Thursday morning skill session, which is popular with adult Learn to Play participants.
“Maybe half of them just do the once a week and then close to half are skating a second or third time a week because they’re just so eager to get better,” Cole said.
Hlinka has also witnessed the excitement from players wanting to participate in as many hockey-related activities as possible.
“You wouldn’t believe how many public skates sell out. It’s a family function,” Hlinka said. “People come in and they’re just excited just to be part of it. We have the team store in our building and you see a lot of jerseys. It’s a cool atmosphere and the buzz is great.”
Once an adult has mastered the Learn to Play program, he or she can move onto playing in the Kraken Hockey League (KHL), which was formerly known as the Greater Seattle Hockey League (GSHL).
Cole figures that roughly 90% of the Learn to Play graduates transition right into the adult league.
“I think the ones that don’t sign up it’s not so much where they tried it and didn’t like it, they’re just maybe going to start later or I’ll come back to it or maybe they found a different group,” Cole said. “Some people come to us for the Learn to Play, but they might have a friend that was maybe in a smaller group of some sort. I would have a hunch that it’s more like 99% are joining some kind of game or league somewhere.”
There are roughly 2,000 players and over 115 teams in the KHL.
Since the pandemic, numbers in the league have greatly fluctuated. It was at about 80-90 teams, then down to nothing. About 30 teams skated in early 2021 and that number crept back up toward 60 later in the year.
But with new adult players that have never played in leagues joining after being in the Learn to Play program, numbers have exploded.
“It was a big jump for this fall season,” Cole said. “It probably doubled between the last season of GSHL and the first season of the Kraken Hockey League. We probably went from 65 to 115.”
Once the current Learn to Play session is completed, the number of teams in the KHL will expand again.
“These guys are going to turn into six teams in mid-March, and we’re going to start up another session. My hunch is, we’ll make another six, seven, eight teams that will start in the summer,” Cole said. “I think it’s rolling at a pretty good pace.”
Cole hopes and expects the buzz around hockey in Seattle to continue into the fall and beyond. That waiting list to get into the Learn to Play program might just keep getting longer by the day.
“It still seems like the message of, ‘Anybody can do this, anybody can try this,’ is still surprising to a lot of people. When you tell them, they’re just like, ‘Wow. I had no idea,’” Cole said. “There’s just so many people that don’t know that they can play yet. We’ve just got to keep getting the word out to them and educating people that opportunity is there.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.