Kraken hold first practice of training camp in great atmosphere

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SEATTLE — The first fan arrived at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, about two hours before the Seattle Kraken appeared at the Kraken Community Iceplex, their brand-new, three-sheet practice facility. Mario Barile had a ticket and was guaranteed a seat. He just couldn’t wait any longer.

“I’ve been waiting almost 30 years to have a hockey team here,” Barile said.

Barile, 33, grew up in Washington state. With family in Southern California, he became a fan of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim as a kid. But now he had an NHL team to call his own, and so, shortly after the doors opened at 8:30 a.m., he found a spot in the stands with his wife, Roxanne, 26.

“We wanted to get in and just hang out and be a part of the feel,” Barile said. “We’re just amped.”

It was the first practice of the first training camp of the NHL’s newest team, and it meant a lot to a lot of people, from the fans to the executives to the coaches to the players.

The Kraken had to limit attendance to a few hundred fans at each of the two sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving them with about half the amount they hoped to have originally. Everyone wore a mask.

Still, the fans made noise at their first glimpse of the players since the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21. The players responded, waving as they left the ice.

“Coming out, there’s fans out watching practice, cheering us through the drills, so it’s a great atmosphere,” defenseman Mark Giordano said. “It’s been a great atmosphere ever since the draft in the city. There’s been a buzz for our team.”

There were fans old and new, Seattle natives and transplants.

Ernie Jorgensen, 63, wore a green Seattle Totems jersey. He grew up going to see the old Western Hockey League team play under the same iconic roof where the Kraken will play at the rebuilt and rebranded Climate Pledge Arena near the Space Needle.

“It’s kind of unbelievable,” Jorgensen said. “It’s our first NHL team. I’m just excited about that.”

Jeremy Stegal, 38, was one of many fans in Kraken gear. Once a season ticket holder for Iowa of the American Hockey League and the Florida Panthers, he said he moved to Seattle in large part because it landed an NHL expansion team.

“I really wanted to be a fan all the way through and through from the very beginning,” Stegal said.

Tod Leiweke sat in the stands like a fan, taking videos with his phone. He has been president and CEO of the Kraken since before the expansion announcement Dec. 4, 2018, and has overseen everything from the name and uniforms, to the hiring of the hockey operations staff, to the construction of the practice facility and game arena.

“I’ve missed about four meetings already this morning, because I just can’t step away,” Leiweke said. “This is why we did all this. I’m so proud of our facilities. I’m proud of our coaches. I’m proud of our team. But at the end of the day, what I’m most proud of is to be associated with fans like this. They’ve given life to this, and it’s an emotional day.”

General manager Ron Francis watched practice everywhere from a perch above the ice to a spot against the glass. Hired July 18, 2019, he assembled much of the front office and support staff, plus the coaching staff and the roster. He helped with details down to paint colors.

“For me, it’s been a long journey to get to this point,” Francis said. “So, to see them actually on the ice, and having players out there playing, is really exciting.”

Coach Dave Hakstol started the process of setting standards, installing systems and developing chemistry. The Kraken open the preseason against the Vancouver Canucks in Spokane, Washington, on Sunday and the regular season at the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 12.

“You can’t do everything all in one day,” Hakstol said. “We really wanted to make sure that we just took one or two pieces of some of our key areas and just tried to get those in today, along with making sure that we established that competitive side and the pace side of camp. Things are going to happen quick.”

Most of the players had been going through informal workouts at the practice facility for a couple of weeks. But this was their first time together with the coaches, their first time in front of fans.

“I bet if you watch the practice, there’s a lot of smiles,” center Alex Wennberg said. “Even though it’s hardworking, I feel like everyone’s just so excited. Having people here watching us as well, it’s just been a blast so far.”

It’s a new journey, and everyone in Seattle is starting out together.

“I got up early today,” said Giordano, a 37-year-old who has played 15 NHL seasons, all with the Calgary Flames. “I was excited to come to the rink and felt the energy of Day One, for sure. It’s something new for me too. I’ve been in the League for a long time, but this is pretty cool.”

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