When the puck drops for the Seattle Kraken’s inaugural season this fall, ESPN will return to broadcasting NHL games for the first time since 2004. Perhaps it’s a fitting coincidence of timing for two sports businesses that had their share of detractors when they were trying to get started.
Overcoming rejections and the cynical naysayers require a determined attitude and special leadership to make these innovative visions, which were underestimated by others, a reality. For Seattle hockey fans, they’ve had Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke to plan and deliver the renovation of Climate Pledge Arena and Kraken majority owner David Bonderman and president and CEO Tod Leiweke to recognize the region’s untapped interest in hockey.
In ESPN’s case, founder Bill Rasmussen took an idea for a 24-hour sports network and turned it into a reality in 1979 despite multiple prospective investors turning down his proposals and many broadcasters and businesspeople telling him it would fail.
“He’s got more optimism than anyone I think I’ve ever met,” said Mike Soltys, who Rasmussen hired as ESPN’s first intern in 1980 and is now vice president, corporate communications at the network. “He’s always just looking at things from the positive side and how to make them happen. And when things don’t go right he has the ability to just move on from them. He doesn’t dwell on it.”
Now 88 and living in Lake Forest Park just north of Seattle, Rasmussen radiates the positivity and optimism that served him well in the network’s formative days and beyond. In a Zoom interview last month, he recalled how he persevered to achieve his goal to create ESPN.
“It’s hard to believe that in the 1970s before ESPN came along there really weren’t, comparatively speaking, very many live sports on television,” Rasmussen said. “The three big networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) only did about 1,300 hours combined in the course of a year. … Saturday afternoon football or a baseball game and Sunday ‘Wide World of Sports’ or something. We were saying we’re going to do 8,760 hours of sports around the clock all year.
“And you know, of course everybody says that’s not gonna work; nobody’s gonna watch it. Where are you going to find all the sports, etc.? And by comparison, of course, we did get to 8,760 hours, we went 24 hours a day. Not right at the beginning but shortly thereafter.”
For some perspective, he pointed out, ESPN in 2019 presented 83,340 total live hours of studio and event programming – TV and digital combined. Safe to say, millions of sports fans are thankful Rasmussen persisted and eventually landed crucial investment money from Getty Oil to turn his idea into the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
Rasmussen forges ahead while confronting Parkinson’s disease
Even in retirement, Rasmussen has been resilient while forging ahead through personal setbacks such as Parkinson’s disease. He doesn’t like to describe himself as “suffering” from the disease because he can do everything he enjoys. Rasmussen has had to make some adjustments, although “I don’t think I could field groundballs anymore at third base like I used to,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, he’s tackling Parkinson’s with the same spirit he tapped into for overcoming obstacles and achieving his business success.
“Everybody kids me, how can I be so optimistic? Well, that’s the way I’ve been. I’ve been around for (nearly) 90 years … and I’ve just been positive,” he said. “I think we can do anything that we set our minds to do. Someday there’ll be a cure for Parkinson’s.”
To stay active and sharp, Rasmussen has been writing a book that is due to be released in the fall. It looks at the evolution of sports and sports radio, TV and streaming from the 1930s to the 2020s along with major historic U.S. and world events during his lifetime.
“I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease many years ago. And so a neurologist said, ‘You have to keep busy; do something. Write a page a day; write a book. Do something.’ So I said, ‘Well, why not write the book?’ It has been very helpful and it’s fun to go through and recall all of the things that I witnessed and go and learn (about) the things before.”
Rasmussen has been witness to significant changes in sports and broadcasting. Born in Chicago, he served in the Air Force and earned an economics degree and an MBA before starting an advertising services business. Then in the early 1960s his love of sports led to a career pivot, and he became a versatile TV and radio broadcaster who worked on news and multiple sports.
He said he had been eager to become a baseball play-by-play announcer and finally got his chance. After working games for a Double-A team in Pittsfield, Mass., he discovered the hard truth that all hockey fans can understand.
“About the 10th game in I decided this is a really boring job,” Rasmussen said with a laugh. “Hockey was much better because (it’s) in motion all the time.”
Hockey, it turns out, had a big assist in creating ESPN. In 1974, Rasmussen joined the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers as their communications director. But in 1978, Whalers owner Howard Baldwin fired Rasmussen along with the rest of the front office.
If Baldwin – the movie producer who later brought action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Russell Crowe to the ice in “Sudden Death” and “Mystery, Alaska,” respectively – hadn’t fired Rasmussen, he wouldn’t have had the urgency to start a new business. ESPN would not exist – or at least be what it is today – without the head start it got from Rasmussen and his son Scott.
Quest to find a cure
Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2014, Bill Rasmussen has tried to use his influence and connections to help others, improve research and raise money to find a cure for the disease.
“The biggest single thing with Parkinson’s is people don’t want to even go find out whether or not they have it,” Rasmussen said. “They might notice a little tremor; they might notice a little hesitation in their step. I say, ‘Well, you know, that’ll be OK,’ those are the early indications of Parkinson’s. But people don’t want to hear those words, so you can’t really attack living with it until you admit that you have it.”
The ESPN founder is on the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s patient council and is actively involved in the American Parkinson Disease Association to help raise awareness. He said it’s important for more people of all ages with the disease commit their time to participate in research studies.
“No one knows when it starts. They can’t just say, OK we’ve discovered you at this stage, we know that you probably contracted this a year ago or 10 years ago, we can’t do that because we haven’t got enough research,” Rasmussen said.
A person is diagnosed with Parkinson’s about once every nine minutes in the United States, according to the APDA.
“So you can imagine that’s lot of people, and we don’t even know how many people who just don’t want to admit it,” Rasmussen said.
One of the main messages he makes through his volunteer roles and outreach is to remind people to not give up. Describing himself as being on the “intentionally optimistic side rather than ‘Oh, woe is me’ side” in response to being diagnosed, Rasmussen also is excited by the advances being made to cure the disease.
“I’m a confident guy. I think they can solve it,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t know if it’s while I’m still here, but I’ll just have to live longer that’s all. I figure 100, 105 maybe. By that time I’ll be slowing down.”
“I’ve been asked that a few times, and it probably wouldn’t have (been created),” Rasmussen said of ESPN. “I would have kept on doing hockey till I either got fired or got bored, one or the other, and it turned out I got fired first.”
While stuck in freeway traffic in Connecticut, Rasmussen and his son were killing time by brainstorming “what if” and “what about” ideas when it led to thoughts of creating a 24-hour sports channel.
This perfect example of one door closing and another one opening combined with some serendipity in acquiring satellite access and making your own luck through ingenuity and hard work created a path to success. Rasmussen eventually used $9,000 from a credit card advance to create ESPN, and the world’s first 24-hour television network was launched in 1979.
Whalers connections from ESPN to the Kraken
Another parallel between ESPN and the Kraken is the team’s links to the Whalers. The WHA’s New England Whalers joined the NHL and became the Hartford Whalers a year after Baldwin fired Rasmussen. Seattle general manager Ron Francis was drafted fourth overall in 1981 and played 10 seasons in Hartford. Former NHL Seattle advisor Dave Tippett, who’s now coaching the Edmonton Oilers, played seven seasons in Hartford.
After witnessing the wild days of the WHA, Rasmussen could probably write an entertaining book about the ups and downs of the New England Whalers. As was common for the upstart league that tried to compete with the NHL in the brawling 1970s, the Whalers had their share of notable characters, such as colorful coach Harry Neale, combative goalie Al “The Bear” Smith, hard-hitting Jack “Killer” Carlson, “Slap Shot” Hanson brother Steve Carlson and feisty pest Johnny “Pie” McKenzie.
McKenzie, who had helped the Boston Bruins win two Stanley Cups before bouncing around the WHA, was a gritty, 5-9 grinder who liked getting under the opponent’s skin. Rasmussen recalled McKenzie “around a gaggle of players” and doing his instigating best during a 1978 game after the Hartford Civic Center’s roof had collapsed in a snowstorm.
“We were playing up in Springfield, and it’s an image I can see right now talking to you,” Rasmussen said. “He was agitating, you know, elbows and the stick and all this. Somebody turned around, and I don’t know if they were swinging at him but they missed him and hit somebody else. He just went over and he jumped up and sat on the boards while there’s a big fight going out on the ice. He’s the guy who started it all, and he’s sitting over on the boards. He looked like a little kid with his legs hanging down, and he was laughing. He was a character.”
Another “big-time instigator” Rasmussen admired and has fond memories of is Gordie Howe, one of the WHA’s marquee players and the biggest star of the New England Whalers. After moving from the Houston Aeros to the Whalers in 1977-78 with his sons Mark and Marty, the Detroit Red Wings legend led New England in scoring with 96 points in 76 games. Even as he was turning 50 in 1978, Howe’s fitness was superior to most of his teammates, and Rasmussen said he could still run rings around the rookies.
“I remember (Neale) saying this one year you had to have the players run, I don’t know a six-minute mile or some such thing as part of their conditioning in the fall. And Gordie won it every time! He was ahead of them, so he finally said, ‘You can’t do this, Gordie. You’re embarrassing them,’” Rasmussen said with a laugh.
“Can you imagine the young, what 18-, 20-year-old who thinks he’s in great shape and here’s this graybeard saying, ‘Come on, kid, catch up.’”
Old-time hockey, like Eddie Shore
Rasmussen’s old-time hockey connections run even deeper than the WHA. While he was working radio and TV jobs in Springfield, Mass., Rasmussen did play-by-play for the American Hockey League’s Springfield Indians/Kings. Team owner and Boston Bruins legend Eddie Shore decided he needed to give Rasmussen some one-on-one lessons on the finer points about hockey.
“I remember Johnny Wilson was the coach and he had me down (on the ice for practice). And if they were missing somebody I would skate the right wing or left wing or center, whatever the deal was,” Rasmussen said. “I was just filling a position, nobody did anything to me. But you’d have to wear shin guards because those guys they just can’t help but tap somebody in the shins with a stick.
“But Eddie Shore came out one day, and he used to come out and blow the whistle when the Zamboni was coming out after the morning skate. And I’d go off like everybody else, and he said – I can still hear him – he said, ‘Mister come over here. Mister you, over here. He says, if you’re gonna do this you oughta learn how to skate.”
Rasmussen wasn’t exactly a novice. He said he’d skated for 40 years and was a referee for junior hockey in Massachusetts.
“And then he said, ‘Do you know how to hold a hockey stick?’ I mean he’s really giving it to me. So come over here, he dropped a bunch of pucks and he started backhanding them up against the boards. … And he’s just standing and he’s firing pucks backhand and he says, ‘OK you do that.’ I couldn’t do a backhand. I couldn’t lift the puck off the ice backhanded if I was doing it from then till now. It would never happen. But he said, ‘We’re going to teach you,’ and he frequently would come over as we were going off and he’d say, ‘Let’s try this today.’”
Shore’s legacy as a rugged Hockey Hall of Fame player and two-time Stanley Cup winner for the Bruins is nearly matched by his notoriety as a cheapskate owner. Rasmussen recalled a famous 1966 players strike over poor wages that led to Shore recruiting replacement players from the Eastern Hockey League, which “was known mostly for drop the puck and let’s fight. Those were tough days.”
“It was comedy on ice for about two or three games before they finally reached some sort of an accommodation, and the real guys came back and played,” Rasmussen said.
The standards for running a pro sports franchise have thankfully progressed since the 1960s. Shore resisted broadcasting Indians games on the radio until the mid-1960s because he thought it would hurt ticket sales, although Rasmussen said they “always sold out 5,934 people every game.”
Shore’s management style for pinching pennies involved members of his family helping the Indians cut costs. Rasmussen recalled dropping in on the Eastern States Coliseum in West Springfield in the offseason during a horse show and running into Shore’s son Ted.
“I said, ‘Teddy, what are you doing here? There’s no hockey today.’ He says, ‘Oh, I’m making popcorn,’” Rasmussen said.
“I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m making popcorn.’
“This is like August or early September, so he took me back and showed me they had these big, they looked like 55-gallon drums, and they’re made out of fiberboard. He’s back there filling those and making popcorn for the season. So you know the popcorn that you’re eating in November and December was probably made in August and September.”
Fortunately venue management and sports franchise ownership have evolved considerably since then, and Rasmussen and his fellow Seattle hockey fans can expect much fresher fare when Climate Pledge Arena opens. And whenever the Kraken make their national TV debut, Seattle fans should give some thanks to their innovative neighbor in Lake Forest Park with the unwavering optimism for not giving up on his vision to create ESPN.
“I think I’m a great advocate of getting up in the morning and having a happy thought right away,” Rasmussen said. “I remember Jimmy Durante used to sing this song about you’ve got to ‘Start Off Each Day With a Song,’ and that’s a happy song.”
(Top photo of Bill Rasmussen on the “SportsCenter” set: Rich Arden/ESPN Images)
Jim Wilkie is a longtime Northwest journalist, former NHL editor and NHL Insider writer for ESPN.com, onetime GSHL All-Star, and SJHA hockey dad. Follow him on Twitter @jimwilkie.