SEATTLE — In the hierarchy of influential figures in Seattle’s sports history, Ken Johnsen’s name isn’t likely to be found even if his fingerprints are all over the landscape.
More than two decades ago, Johnsen was heavily involved in the building of the stadium now named T-Mobile Park that kept the Mariners from relocating and taking Major League Baseball away from Seattle.
For the past three years, Johnsen has overseen the construction of Climate Pledge Arena, which helped lure the NHL and could maybe bring the NBA back to Seattle someday.
He’s an expert when it comes to the construction of sports venues. But at his core, Johnsen is a fan, a Seattle native who still feels the loss of the NBA’s SuperSonics 13 years ago. But he can’t wait to be in the building Saturday night when the NHL expansion Seattle Kraken play their first home game against the Vancouver Canucks.
“Everyone working on this project will tell you this is as fun as it gets,” Johnsen said. “You’re building a new building. You’re building a new franchise, and you’re building it at a location that is just perfect. We’re kind of a startup in a lot of different ways. I came to the Sonics games when I was in my teens. And I watched the (Seattle) Totems here. I date myself but I saw the Beatles here.”
When the Kraken take the ice against Vancouver, nearly 5,000 days will have elapsed since the final chants of “Super … Sonics” rang out on the same site in the old KeyArena.
April 13, 2008, was the closing of one chapter. Oct. 23, 2021, is the beginning of a new one. And it matters little that Seattle started the season 1-3-1 on its opening five-game road trip. The home opener will be a celebration, no matter the record.
“We’re a veteran enough group that we’ll use that to our advantage,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said. “Take a few minutes to take it all in and really enjoy it, and then feed off the energy that will be in the building tomorrow night.”
The return of a professional winter sports franchise is providing a cathartic release for hockey fans who had begged for the NHL in this corner of the country and for sports fans in general who have felt incomplete since the day the SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.
The Kraken are not a replacement for the beloved NBA franchise, which left a void for fans throughout the Pacific Northwest.
But that doesn’t detract from what the Kraken’s arrival represents. It was the potential of the NHL coming to Seattle that spurred the $1 billion project to essentially build a new arena under the historic roofline of what had been KeyArena, where Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp once thrilled thousands.
The Kraken hope to inspire thunderous chants of “Gru” for Philipp Grubauer saves, screams for quick fan favorite Brandon Tanev and to eventually host Stanley Cup playoff games.
“The whole city has scheduled (Saturday) on their calendar so I think it’s going to be awesome,” Grubauer said.
If nothing else, the arrival of the Kraken provides something to look forward to during those cold months when rain falls sideways and the sun disappears shortly after 4 p.m. For decades, those nights would generate buzz because of whatever NBA star might be in town.
Now there’s another league and stars like Sidney Crosby, Austin Matthews or Connor McDavid to look forward to.
And, of course, cheering on the hometown team.
“We’re getting to be part of something not many guys are going to be able to say they have at the end of their career, and in the history of the game,” Kraken captain Mark Giordano said. “It will be a pretty special moment for us as players, for our organization, for the city, for everyone involved.”