This season hasn’t played out the way Kraken forward John Hayden envisioned. He signed a one-year, two-way deal with Seattle in July and entered the team’s training camp on a mission to make the opening-night roster. 

After three seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and one each with New Jersey, Arizona, and Buffalo, Hayden saw an opportunity with Seattle. 

“In talking to my family, my agent, it just was the right fit,” Hayden said of his decision to sign with the Kraken. “We just thought that top to bottom, this staff and this organization— I mean, there were a lot of good options, but this just felt right.” 

He had a solid camp and made his physical—and offensive—presence known in Seattle’s penultimate preseason game in Vancouver. That night, Seattle came back from a two-goal deficit and won 4-3 in overtime. Hayden was a central figure in the comeback, with two separate fights against Kyle Burroughs and Dakota Joshua, and he scored the tying goal in the third period. 

It was a nice exclamation point on the preseason for Hayden, who left Seattle’s coaching staff with a difficult decision on whether to keep him with the NHL team or send him to the AHL’s Coachella Valley Firebirds. 

The decision didn’t go Hayden’s way. Daniel Sprong and Cale Fleury ended up as the last bubble players to make the roster, while Hayden was placed on waivers with the intention of assigning him to Coachella Valley. Despite his 241 games of NHL experience, Hayden was one of Seattle’s two final cuts along with Michal Kempny. 

Clearing waivers the following day meant Hayden would see his first action in the AHL since the 2017-18 season, the only other time he’s ever played in the minors. 

Still, Hayden wasn’t shocked to be sent down. “I knew it was a possibility,” he said. “I mean last year, I was on a two-way deal in Buffalo, but I spent the whole year in the NHL. [It was the] same thing, on a two-way this year, but I thought I had a real good chance of making the team. And that was my full intention and goal during training camp.” 

A hectic start for Coachella Valley built strong bonds

Of course, being sent to Coachella Valley didn’t really mean Hayden would physically be moving to the desert right away. The Firebirds’ home venue, Acrisure Arena, was not yet finished, so Hayden and his new teammates spent two months in hotels and AirBNB’s around Seattle with Kraken Community Iceplex as their temporary home base. 

For Hayden personally, being on the road was nothing new. As a kid, he moved around a lot; from Chicago to Denver and Denver to Connecticut with his family, then Connecticut to Ann Arbor to join the National Team Development Program, and Ann Arbor back to Connecticut to play at Yale. “I’m used to living out of suitcases and hotels,” Hayden said. “It’s just part of the job.” 

John Hayden skates for the Coachella Valley Firebirds against the Abbotsford Canucks. (Photo/Brian Liesse)

As for the Firebirds, Hayden thinks the extended time on the road helped bring them together as a team. 

“I thought it was actually pretty good for us to be able to have two months on the road together out of hotels and bonding,” he said. “The team ended up winning most games during that stretch, so now we’re in a pretty good position.” 

The successful start to the year has only led to more winning for the Firebirds, who are in first place in the Pacific Division with a stunning 28-6-4 record. Hayden credits the success to how close the players are to one another and the amount of fun they have off the ice. He thinks may not be doing as well if it weren’t for their long road trip to start the season.

At 27 years old, Hayden is a seasoned veteran by AHL standards. He has put up good numbers down there, with 13 goals and 12 assists in 34 games, along with 49 penalty minutes, a sign of a player who is willing to get involved in physical play.

Hayden hasn’t been the only veteran helping to lead the team, though. 

“I think a lot of guys down there are in the same boat, where they’re middle-aged or veteran guys,” Hayden said. “Our rookies are great, but it’s a lot of guys who’ve been in pro hockey for a few years.”

No regrets in signing with the Kraken

It’s easy to wonder if maybe Hayden wishes he had signed elsewhere in the offseason, being that he has spent most of the season in the minors. But he has found good value in his time playing under Dan Bylsma in the AHL and has nothing but good things to say about the organization as a whole. 

Now that he’s back up with the Kraken, Hayden is excited to be on an NHL roster again, but he isn’t losing sight of the positive experiences he’s been having in Coachella Valley.

“It feels great [to be back],” Hayden said. “It doesn’t really change my mentality, whether I’m here or in Coachella. I’m really just trying to put myself in the best spot from a development standpoint and helping the team win.”  

Meanwhile, Hayden is getting positive reviews from Kraken coach Dave Hakstol for the way he has worked since returning to Seattle and how he performed against Colorado on Saturday in his first appearance with the team. 

“It’s not an easy role,” Hakstol said. “For [Hayden] to come up here and just jump in and play his eight-to-10 minutes when he got one seven-second shift in the first period of that hockey game, but to do his job for the second and third, that just shows you he knows who he is. He knows what he has to do to help us.”

Hayden hopes that the work he’s putting in this season will help make him an NHL regular again one day soon. 

“Of course I would like to be in the NHL full time,” he said. “But the experience I’ve had so far from a development standpoint with Coachella, all the staff down there, it’s been great. So, just really a first-class organization.”