On an October day the Mariners were to play one of their first divisional playoff games in two decades, their top ballpark officials met with NHL counterparts about a completely different sporting event featuring the crosstown Kraken.
The culmination of that meeting and others was announced Monday, with the Kraken being awarded their first-ever outdoor game to be played next Jan. 1 at T-Mobile Park against the Vegas Golden Knights. Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said in a phone interview Monday the NHL’s decision to play the 2024 Discover Winter Classic in a city known for rain this time of year had plenty to do with the Mariners’ flexibility in making their retractable-roofed ballpark available for several weeks .
“They were just so impressed that they even met with them on the day of one of their playoff games,” Leiweke said of the meeting, which took place in the hours leading up to a Mariners road contest against the Astros in Houston. “And given the uncertainty of the weather and the risk involved, it helps to have that safeguard in there.”
Beyond the team’s flexibility in making T-Mobile Park available for the lengthy process of building the temporary hockey rink inside, the NHL liked that it would have the ability to only partially close the stadium’s roof directly over the rink if it rains. That would enable them to keep the remainder of the venue in an open-air environment the league believes is crucial to the appeal of its outdoor games.
The Winter Classic the past 15 years since its 2008 debut in Buffalo has evolved beyond just a regular-season game into a marquee NHL showcase event, preceded by days and even weeks of side activities that can boost local tourism. It is generally held on or around New Year’s Day and separate from the NHL Heritage Classic and NHL Stadium Series outdoor games.
This year’s event took place Monday afternoon at Fenway Park in Boston, with the hometown Bruins scoring twice in the third period for a 2-1 comeback win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Previous Winter Classic events in 2011 and 2012 were delayed due to rain and other weather, which can cause dangerous cracks and bumpiness in the ice surface. Two years ago, the NHL delayed the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday event between Colorado and Vegas by nine hours in between the first and second periods after mild temperatures and sun glare caused problematic conditions for players.
And the 2014 Heritage Classic — an NHL outdoor game played in Canadian cities — took place completely indoors at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver after officials made a late decision to keep the retractable roof closed due to inclement weather. Tickets were still available the day of the game and many fans in attendance complained that it lacked a true winter feel, something the NHL has since tried to avoid repeating.
During a January 2019 visit to Seattle shortly after the Kraken franchise was awarded, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said a steady downpour of several days taking place at the time was the main concern in staging an outdoor game here.
“There are two things that are a problem for us with outdoor games … sun glare — well, that’s not a problem here — and rain,” Bettman said. “We can play in snow, but rain is a problem. So, we’re going to have to study whether or not it’s feasible.”
When it was pointed out that T-Mobile Park has a retractable roof, Bettman said: “But then it’s not an outdoor game.”
But Steve Mayer, head of NHL Events & Entertainment, said in a conference call Monday the plan is to build the stadium rink under a partial section of T-Mobile Park’s roof so that if needed on game day, only that portion would be closed. Where the NHL built its Fenway Park rink between third base and second base, the plan for now is to reconfigure the T-Mobile Park rink more between third base and first base so that it “fits perfectly under the slab of roof” that can protect the ice from any rain.
“If there was a rain, we know that we could put at least one part of the roof closed over the rink,” Mayer said. “And having been there and experienced it, it still feels pretty open air to us. But I do feel that was a determining factor over the other incredible stadiums in Seattle as to why we chose the baseball stadium.”
Mayer said the league chose Vegas as an opponent instead of the more regional Vancouver Canucks because of a strong belief Seattle could support the game on its own without needing British Columbia residents to help fill the stands.
“We love the storyline between the last two teams to enter the league,” he said.
Mayer said the NHL has looked into staging a winter event here since the Kraken franchise was approved in December 2018. He’s made multiple trips here, including staging the July 2021 outdoor expansion draft event at Gas Works Park and before the team’s Climate Pledge Arena opening. against the Canucks in October 2021, and had a chance to tour various venues.
Mayer said his team staged three meetings with Mariners officials specializing in ballpark operations, including the October one before the playoff game against the Astros.
“We got in early before the game started and were able to spend as much time as we did with the core group … but we respectfully decided to take a break during the game and we went across the street and had a lovely lunch while we watched the game ourselves,” Mayer said. “We left them in peace as they watched the game and then we met afterwards once again to sort of close up that particular meeting.”
Leiweke, in an earlier conference call with local media members Monday, said Commissioner Bettman’s decision to play a marquee outdoor game here has plenty to do with “rewarding” Kraken fans for their patience during an at-times trying franchise launch in 2021-22.
“I think he’s seen what happened here and he’s been totally inspired by it,” Leiweke said. “This totally happened on his watch. And he’d long talked about Seattle. But we fixed the arena. We brought this team to life under pretty difficult circumstances for our fans. It was hard for us, but for fans that first year with a global pandemic and a team that was a work in progress on the ice, I think what the fans have done is inspiring.
“And I think that when I talked to Gary about it, we talked about rewarding our fans for amazing, amazing support.”
Leiweke added: “This is going to be an incredible, incredible reward for them to show up and invite literally tens of thousands of their friends, neighbors and other sports fans across the region … and he bought that idea that we owed it to our fans .”