The lights went down in Climate Pledge Arena, and the first images of the pre-game show for the April 8 Kraken game against the Chicago Blackhawks appeared on the immense screens suspended over the ice. As fog was being pumped in from the rafters, the playing surface, with the help of carefully placed projectors, transformed into ominous ocean waves.
When the bone-rattling sound effects kicked in, Kraken Vice President of Game Experience and Production, Lamont Buford—from his perch atop section 117—noticed a split-second delay in the timing of the audio starting. “We were almost late on that one,” he said, before feverishly scribbling down a note on his 30-page show script.
The night before that Saturday game, Buford left team headquarters at Kraken Community Iceplex in the evening to have dinner with his wife. He then returned to the office and worked from 8 pm to 1 am, and was at Climate Pledge from from 10 am until 10:45 pm on gameday. And Buford’s team works just as hard as he does.
“Those who are crazy enough to be a part of the game presentation world, they get it, they have a passion for it, and they love it,” he said.
As fans, we tend to assume everything happening at a pro sporting event is done magically. We don’t think about the teams of people working tirelessly behind the scenes to put on a memorable spectacle, dictating what we see, hear, feel, and even smell during the course of the game.
So how does it all happen? Through diligent planning, careful orchestration of a highly skilled and driven team, and intense attention to detail.
Sound Of Hockey went behind the scenes with Buford and several members of the Kraken game experience team to get a feel for how all the pieces sync together.
Innumerable moving parts
Producing a sporting event is a unique challenge. “It’s a theater play, it’s a broadcast, and it’s a live event, all wrapped up in one,” said Buford. Producing a Kraken game at Climate Pledge Arena, one of the most technologically advanced arenas in the world, is even more demanding than doing so in older buildings.
Think about that pre-game show you’ve seen before Kraken games this season. Of course, there’s the cinematic hype video that plays on the two identical scoreboards, but that’s only part of the sensory experience for the audience. There’s also music, sound effects, lighting effects, on-ice projections, graphical displays on the LED ribbons that line the facades of the upper levels, and live public address announcements.
Those elements have all become fairly standard in today’s NHL. But the Kraken pre-game show takes the presentation a couple steps farther with the arena’s added bells and whistles. A massive neon-embossed tentacle—which team staff have nicknamed “Stella” after Stella’s Deli, a commonly visited lunch spot for the organization in its infancy—descends from the rafters, while the curtains at the north end of the arena serve as a colossal movie screen for the mythical seafaring beast stirring from its slumber.
That is a lot of different components to monitor and cue for perfect timing, and this is just the pre-game show. There’s still a three-hour hockey game to produce, with in-game contests, intermission shows, a house band, a live organist, an ice crew, two DJ’s, and a mascot.
The show takes Buford, his team of 13 full-time employees, and a bevy of part-timers and contractors to execute.
A well-oiled machine
How it all gets managed starts with the structure of the department that Buford helped put in place during Seattle’s inaugural season. For each game, there’s a producer—either himself or Senior Manager of Entertainment Experience, Caitlin Salemi—“calling” the game. Then there’s an “associate” producer that serves as the right hand for the game caller and helps relay information between the off-ice officials and public address announcer, Chet Buchanan.
The “associate” role is filled on any given night by either Salemi or Buford, whichever is not producing the game, or by Nicole “Shabz” Shabaz, who has expressed interest in one day becoming a producer. On games when Salemi is the producer and Shabaz is the associate producer, Buford is free to roam the building and check in on his staff to uncover any unforeseen challenges.
The producer, associate producer, and Buchanan all work from a platform above section 117, so they can see and hear all elements of the game presentation in real time and feel the atmosphere the same way the crowd feels it.
During a game, there is a lot for the producer to juggle, from managing the script to supervising communications between the various teams. Buford praised Salemi for the polished product she has consistently delivered under the pressure of that high-stakes role.
“One of the best things that we were able to do was hire Caitlin,” Buford said. “[She spent] 12 years in the minor leagues [with the Rochester Americans], but actually as the director calling games, calling shows, so she knows what she’s doing… She has been, honestly, just a rock for us.”
The crew at the top of section 117 is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also a team of up to five “stage managers,” who are in the trenches and executing more of the hands-on work. They’re the ones picking people out of the crowd for promotional games and telling participants and in-arena hosts when to walk, when to smile, and when to wave for the cameras.
Meanwhile, in the bowels of the building, there’s a full state-of-the-art control room that is outfitted and staffed like a television news station. It’s in that room that the video seen on the big screens comes to life. So, everything you see on the twin scoreboards—the live game footage, instant replays, and graphics—is cued from that room.
“This room here is beefed up way more than just about any arena in the country with the coverage that we have,” Buford proudly proclaimed, as he surveyed the control room.
High above the playing surface in the press bridge, there are also four rooms dedicated to the game presentation staff; one for the LED ribbon and on-ice projection operators, one for sound control, one for the lighting in the building, and one for DJ Trunks and DJ Cide, the two men responsible for elevating the atmosphere musically throughout the night.
Buford oversees it all but finds peace in knowing he has the right people in place to handle all of their highly specialized tasks.
Building from scratch
Drawing on his past experience with the Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, and Hershey Bears, Buford knew building the in-game show from scratch would require additional staffing and would present rare hurdles.
“It’s also COVID, so you don’t have that time to kind of come in and think about ‘Ok, this is the office setup, this is what I need to make sure I have,’” recalled Buford. “You’re doing everything off a piece of paper, a drawing. And you’re just trying to build the team. Most of the team is coming in from out of town, so it was one of those things that was very different in that regard.”
With the added complexity of the pandemic, the Kraken intentionally hired backups for as many roles as possible to make sure they always had coverage in areas that couldn’t be easily replaced on a given gameday.
“When I got [to Arizona], one of the things I was tasked with was revamping everything,” said Buford. “And the good thing was you already had established people in key areas, so change wasn’t very hard. Everybody was able to adjust and adapt easily. When you’re in another place that’s established, you know where the staplers are, you know where the Sharpies are. Here, we didn’t know where anything was. We had to bring all that in.”
With the framework in place for the team’s second season, and with the restrictions of COVID mostly lifted, things got a bit easier for Buford’s team to enhance the experience into something truly special for the fanbase.
One of the best shows in the league
A lot of the additional staffing remained in place during the 2022-23 season, and that has helped the Kraken’s in-game show become one of the best in the NHL. Buford, who says he is his team’s harshest critic, ranks Seattle’s show in the top three with Tampa Bay and Vegas.
When he wasn’t monitoring the show from the stands, Buford displayed an almost mayoral quality strolling around the CPA concourses that evening, fist bumping dozens of passersby; “I know just a few people here,” he deadpanned. During a Kraken game is when Buford actually gets to enjoy the fruits of his and his team’s labor, but it’s only a fraction of the work done each day by his department.
“Everybody knows about Vegas,” Buford said. “It’s always kind of that thing where everybody is like, ‘You gotta do better than Vegas.’ Vegas is so unique, you can’t take that show anywhere else.”
Knowing the local Seattle market, the Kraken intentionally went in a different direction from what the Golden Knights created, instead choosing to build their own unique identity. That approach has worked wonders, and what fans encounter inside Climate Pledge Arena is unlike anything else in sports.
Fans seem to have picked up the baton and run with it. The crowd itself is a key part of the experience, bringing a festive ambience every night, and Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke knows that’s an essential piece of the puzzle.
“We think there’s an upside, but the best thing we have in that building isn’t the bricks and mortar and lights or sound effects,” Leiweke said on a recent Zoom call. “It’s really our fans. And they have been awesome from day one, and they are loud. I think our players feel it, and I just can’t wait [for the playoffs].”
A new look for the playoffs?
For as good as the game experience is already, Buford and his team are just getting started. With the Kraken in the playoffs for the first time, they have big things planned, including a new pre-game show and a plaza party outside the arena.
“We’re pretty satisfied that we’ve got a great game experience going on now,” said Leiweke. “But I’m also really happy that our team doesn’t rest on any laurels here. We want to push it. We’re going to have a new open for the playoffs and we’re just going to keep pushing.”
If you’re wondering whether the Kraken will host any gatherings on the north end of the building, where fans can see in through the windows, that is unlikely. The area on that side isn’t as large as it is on the west and south sides of the arena, it’s a bit disjointed with different levels, and it doesn’t get nearly as much foot traffic.
Plus, at this time of year, with the sun still out at the start of the game, the team feels the need to close the curtains anyway to avoid glare on the playing surface. Buford said they tried to keep the curtains open recently, and they immediately started getting complaints relayed to them from players. “Hockey players are very particular. If they get that extra beam of light, they’re like, ‘I can’t see a thing.’”
So, if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of playoff hockey from outside Climate Pledge Arena, you may have to settle for watching it on a big screen with several hundred of your closest friends.
For fans who are lucky enough to be inside the building, the game presentation team should have a nice treat for you. They will be ready to show off their latest spectacle, after putting in hundreds of man-hours to build an experience that matches the intensity of the on-ice product of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Editor’s Note: We would like to extend a sincere thank you to Lamont Buford and his team, as well as Kraken PR, for allowing Sound Of Hockey to shadow the game presentation department during the game on April 8.