Kraken home opener latest chapter in Seattles hockey history

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When the Seattle Kraken play the Vancouver Canucks in their inaugural home opener Saturday (10 p.m. ET; ESPN+, HULU, CBC, CITY, TVAS2, NHL LIVE), it will be the first sporting event at Climate Pledge Arena, a brand-new $1.15 billion facility.

Yet, they will play under the same iconic roof of what was KeyArena and originally the Seattle Center Coliseum, a place with a rich history that includes a lot of hockey and even a little of the NHL going back to the beginning.

The first sporting event under that roof was a hockey game, an exhibition between the Seattle Totems of the former professional Western Hockey League and the three-time defending Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs on Sept. 30, 1964, and hundreds of hockey games were played there afterward.

Climate Pledge Arena will be the best of both worlds, state of the art but with an old soul.

“Every time I think about the first home game, I feel like I just drank a few triple espressos,” said Dave Eskenazi, a Pacific Northwest sports aficionado and memorabilia collector, who went to games at the Coliseum as a kid and will be in the stands Saturday. “Lots of energy. I can’t wait. I really can’t.”

Seattle Center is a 74-acre, park-like campus of cultural attractions downtown. Much of it was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, including its signature structures: the Space Needle, the 605-foot tower that defines the city skyline, and the arena roof shaped like a pyramid close to the ground.

The original subterranean arena was a hub of activity — sports, concerts, roller derby, you name it — and most famous as the home of the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA for stretches.

“If you’ve lived in Seattle, you’ve been to any one of dozens of events in that building,” said Jeff Obermeyer, founder of Seattle Hockey Homepage and author of three books on Seattle hockey history. “It’s where everything big happened that wasn’t a stadium event.”

But first, it was a hockey barn with a capacity of 12,700.

The Totems lost that first exhibition to the Maple Leafs, 7-1. Toronto dressed the likes of George Armstrong, Andy Bathgate, Bob Baun, Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich and Terry Sawchuk, and it was a festive affair.

Invitations were sent to an “Extraordinary Exhibition of Professional Hockey.” There was a black-tie seating section and postgame reception with champagne, imported cheese and “Hot-Boeuf Dans Sauce Ala Maple Leaf.” Toronto coach Punch Imlach wore a tuxedo behind the bench, complete with top hat and tails.

“The first game ever there being a hockey game? Awesome,” Obermeyer said. “And now we just kind of come full circle. Your anchor tenant is an NHL team.”

The Totems are believed to have hosted three more exhibitions at the Coliseum involving NHL teams, defeating the Chicago Black Hawks (two words then) 5-4 on Oct. 5, 1967; defeating the Maple Leafs 3-2 on Oct. 2, 1968; and losing to the Los Angeles Kings 12-4 on Oct. 5, 1969.

The Canucks played the Minnesota North Stars in an exhibition at the Coliseum on Sept. 29, 1972.

The Totems defeated the Soviet Union 8-4 in an exhibition at the Coliseum on Jan. 5, 1975. It was the last stop on a tour of the United States for the Soviets, who rested four top skaters. Still, they started goalie Vladislav Tretiak and scrambled those top skaters into uniform for the third period. It was a miracle before the “Miracle on Ice,” the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

Video: Kraken are set to host home opener on Saturday night

On June 12, 1974, the NHL awarded Seattle an expansion team to begin play in 1976-77. But with Denver also receiving an NHL expansion team and Phoenix moving to the World Hockey Association, the WHL was left with three teams and folded.

The Totems had two seasons to prepare for the NHL but no league in which to play in the meantime. They spent 1974-75 in the Central Hockey League struggling on the ice and at the gate. They folded, the NHL pulled the expansion team and pro hockey left Seattle. The Totems sued, and after a lengthy court battle, the NHL won.

Major junior hockey arrived in 1977 when the Kamloops Chiefs of the Western Canada Hockey League moved to Seattle and became the Breakers. The WCHL became the junior WHL in 1978; the Breakers became the Thunderbirds in 1985. They played some games at the Coliseum.

After another Seattle group did not close a deal for an NHL expansion team in 1990, the Coliseum was redeveloped in 1994-95 with sightlines more suited for basketball and was rebranded as KeyArena. The Sonics left for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder in 2008. The next year, the Thunderbirds moved to a new 6,150-seat arena in Kent, about 20 miles south of the city.

Now come the Kraken, whose arrival was made possible by Oak View Group reimagining and redeveloping a new arena under the old exterior and roof — declared a Seattle Landmark in 2017 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018 — with a marvel of modern engineering.

The groundbreaking ceremony was Dec. 5, 2018, the day after the NHL announced expansion to Seattle. Since then, workers have been in a race to Saturday. They suspended the 44-million-pound roof on pillars, demolished everything underneath, excavated 680,000 cubic yards of earth and built a new 740,000-square-foot arena, nearly doubling the size of the old one while reattaching the roof. The capacity for hockey is now 17,100.

Time for a new chapter of Seattle hockey history.

“I went to my first game there in probably 1989 or ’90, so I’ve been seeing games in that building for a long time,” Obermeyer said. “I’m super interested to see what this is going to look like inside. It will always be the Coliseum in my mind, but I’m sure everything’s going to be totally different. It’s going to be great.”

Images courtesy of Dave Eskenazi and Jeff Obermeyer

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