Imagine being a host and an expansion team suddenly pops up in your city. Now, picture it being an NHL team. Most hosts might panic, because a fundamental understanding of hockey isn’t as prevalent as football, baseball, or basketball knowledge for the normal sports fan in this country.
Some station managers and program directors might even run away from it, seeing as the NHL tends to struggle nationally compared to other major sports. But that didn’t happen at 950 KJR in Seattle. The exact opposite happened, actually. When the Kraken was introduced as the newest NHL franchise in July of 2020, KJR ran directly towards the team, because they saw an opportunity that some didn’t.
From the beginning, the station was all in on helping the Kraken boost ticket sales, as well as the overall popularity of the team. Some hosts had previous experience working hockey, others made it a point to expand their knowledge, as well as their hockey content during shows. It was a collaborative effort to help welcome the newest team in town.
“When they first brought the idea to build a building (at the old site of Key Arena) I think we were all a little skeptical, because we want to see the NBA come back,” said Ian Furness, host at KJR. “But we jumped on board as a station and every host basically said, hey, let’s embrace this. The ticket drive the team had, we really helped promote that and were big supporters of it.
“I’ll give our management credit, our guys behind the scenes, our GM Mark Glynn, our VP of programming Rich Moore, they worked tirelessly with Tod Leiweke to get this deal done. It’s unreal. We have a presence in the building, outside the building, studio at the practice rink and our FM station will benefit with the concerts coming to town. To be honest with you, our competition across the street, they basically ignore all things hockey and all things NHL. For us it’s a no-brainer.”
The team won’t debut until next season, but KJR holds the rights to Kraken games. It’s a nice change, seeing as the station hasn’t been the home of a team in one of the four major American sports leagues for quite some time.
“We’re a pretty unique station,” said Furness. “We lost the Washington Huskies five years ago, we got them back this year, and were the Sonics flagship up through 05-06 season. Besides Husky football and basketball, we haven’t had a property. I don’t think there’s any station in the country that has gone as long as we have without having a property, and not only survive, but thrive. We have really good talent that learns how to adapt.”
A new team and new rights is exciting, but don’t expect KJR to flip its content to something that would resemble a station in a hockey crazy town like Toronto. KJR knows the Seahawks are still No. 1, No. 2 and even No. 3 in terms of importance in Seattle. But there is a scenario that exists where the Kraken could emerge as the next option in town. Four playoff appearances in 44 years has left the fans growing tired of the Mariners yearly antics and Husky football will always play second fiddle to the Seahawks in the fall. The Kraken will have the unique opportunity to have the stage all to itself in a market that’s craving winter sports. If that happens, KJR could benefit greatly from a Vegas or Nashville-like hockey boom.
“I think they have a chance to tap into the fandom of Mariners fans,” said Jason Puckett, host at KJR. ”However, baseball fans are baseball fans, that won’t ever change. They could change on how they spend their money. I don’t think they can ever reach the fandom of Husky football. That product is an institution that has been fostered over generations. The popularity of hockey I think we’ll depend on how much they find early success. They need to immediately hook the fans so they can build on that momentum. But, they will obviously have a grace period to develop that success and passion.”
“We’re starving for winter sports here,” said Furness. “The NBA stole the Sonics from us 12 years ago and we’ve had this big, huge gap from the end of the Seahawks season to the start of the Mariners season. Then, by the time they fall on their face in April, it’s the start of college football and the NFL again. They’re going to fill a nice gap here.”
Hockey isn’t the easiest sport to learn in a short amount of time. Especially if you don’t have a prior knowledge of the sport. Luckily for KJR, the station has hosts that either have worked in the sport, or have made a concerted effort to speed up their knowledge as much as possible.
“I’m probably unique, because I’ve worked in hockey off and on for 30 years,” said Furness. “I’m different than most hosts, in the sense that I have a hockey base of knowledge. I did around 1000 games of play-by-play at the minor-league level. I think as a station, every one of our shows has had a hockey presence on and has done a good job learning it.”
Seattle is very underrated when it comes to cities with an extensive knowledge of hockey. No, it hasn’t had an NHL team, but the city does have a minor league presence that features very popular teams. It won’t be surprising to any of the locals if the Kraken really catch on in Seattle. But regardless of what happens, KJR will roll with the punches that come its way. They’re able to do that because of the versatility with the staff.
“We have really good talent that learns how to adapt,” Furness said. “Yeah, we talk Seahawks all the time, but we can talk about other things and have a good knowledge of it. Our morning show is probably the best baseball show in town. Jason Puckett is easily the most knowledgeable when it comes to the NBA. (Dave Mahler) Softy is Mr. college football and college everything. I think I fall somewhere in between with all that. All of us have done hockey content, with guests and segments. For us it won’t be that hard and it’s not like it’s going to dominate.”
“We’re not gonna be talking to a fan base in Toronto (laughs). We don’t have to be breaking down the ice time and the right hand shot on the power-play, or anything like that. A year ago I would’ve told you were in pure panic mode right now and we would’ve all been hoping we can keep our jobs, but we’re thriving. We’ve done a nice job.”