Entrance gate to T-Mobile Park with crowd going through ticketing, looking upward towards soft clouds and banners for Vegas and Seattle.
T-Mobile Park hosted the NHL Winter Classic on January 1, 2024 between the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken. Kraken won 3-0. (Ray Dubicki)

Seattle’s big hockey event success offers lessons to nightly sports on the other side of town.

New Years Day is always that threshold for whether it’s a wrapup of the prior year or stage setting for the new. One too many things left undone (or strong beers before midnight) can make the turn of the calendar foreboding rather than fun.

As far as major events go, Seattle’s 2023 was pretty good, as the city hosted baseball’s All Star Game, concerts for Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, and the Kraken’s first playoff run in the hockey franchise’s second season. The sports outcomes were not always what we wanted, but they were entertaining. Big waves of visitors downtown lasted all summer.

Fun continued into the new year as the NHL Winter Classic was played at T-Mobile Park. Seattle stepped up for the game. The team, the stadium, and the city came out looking fantastic. The show and surrounding party also gave a glimpse to how things could work a lot better around Climate Pledge Arena and Seattle Center.

Interior of a baseball stadium with open roof and light clouds, with an ice rink covering the infield and small stages for television and performers in the outfield.
The wide view of T-Mobile Park’s field with the Kraken’s ice rink on the infield. The ballpark made for some interesting, but not all unwelcome sightlines. (Ray Dubicki)

A Classic Winter Classic

Start with the sports. Behind ascending goalie Joey Daccord, the Kraken shut out the defending champion Las Vegas Golden Knights 3 to 0. The players arrived in style, with the Kraken in fishing overalls and the Vegas players going full Elvis. The win and strong goalie play was such a boost. It’s been a faltering start to the team’s third year, one I’ve taken personally as last year’s Blue Line Curse saw fit to continue through autumn.

Dressing up T-Mobile as a hockey venue was glorious. While a hockey rink will consume most of a baseball diamond, there’s still an acre of outfield to deal with. The team doubled down on the maritime theme with fishing docks and a smaller rink for kids hockey. The band Heart came out to play two songs during the first intermission (you can guess). From the almost affordable seats on the 300 level, the sightlines worked to make for a fun game to watch. The attendance of 47,313 almost triples the capacity of the Kraken’s regular home at Climate Pledge Arena (CPA). The many Dippin’ Dots stands, not as useful in 46º weather, also sold souvenir cups of hot chocolate. 

Colorful blue and yellow pizza boxes saying MOTO with view of ice rink on a ball field in the distance.
MOTO Pizza boxes from the Winter Classic. No, you don’t get a picture of the pizza. That was gone already. So very good. (Ray Dubicki)

Most importantly, we got there early enough to actually get MOTO pizzas without spending half the game in line. Phenomenal. For those who like crusts and spice (i.e. not cowards) the pizzas are worth buying a ticket to the ballpark. Made in the Detroit form – rectangular and covered in enough cheese to deep fry the dough below – the ballpark versions are two phone-sized pieces of all crusty edges and flavor for $20. The “Kissd” with sausage, pepperoni, and spicy honey is fully a journey per piece. Just some of the best pizza in town, beyond superb stadium food.

And the city was great. Like a normal ballgame, Occidental Avenue was completely open for pedestrians and hot dog vendors. People were in a great mood, Seattleites almost greeting one another verbally in public. The weather cooperated, rolling back the morning’s marine layer and showing the venue and downtown in sunbreaks and wisps of blue sky. 

So much about the Winter Classic worked. It was a celebration of Seattle icons and iconic. Team had a great showing. Legends were cheered as they introduced past players from many sports. It was a great warm up to later in the day when Husky Football won the Sugar Bowl and advanced to the National Championship. And all on the eve of the most important event of the year: my birthday.

Concession level of the ballpark with thick crowds in thicker winter gear.
Interior corridors at T-Mobile Park were packed for the game, with lines for concessions and food that went sections away and blocked movement. (Ray Dubicki)

Some Rough Edges to Hockey in a Ballpark

Leaving open the important question, did we celebrate the last gasp of the old or ring in the new? Was the Winter Classic a 2023 hangover or a worthy kickoff for 2024 and beyond? 

Let’s consider the few things that fell flat for the Winter Classic. The lines sucked. And there were lines everywhere. The NHL Fan Village on the parking lot north of Lumen Field required a separate pass to enter, which came as a nondescript email. The line to get in once you had a pass stretched the entire length of Lumen Field. We skipped it, and don’t regret it. Everyone one who did go in said they got to do one thing inside – interactive game, beverage, picture with the Stanley Cup – then had to leave for time.

The lines repeated inside the ballpark. It’s understandable that, when you’re opening an enormous venue for just one event in the middle of the off season, some things won’t be available. Draft soda and beer was no-go, as all the machines were flushed and sealed for the year. Souvenir stands were huge waits. Food concessions faltered and ran out of many favorites before the third period. The concourses were mobbed, shoulder-to-shoulder trudges.

But there were fairly short lines at the bathrooms, which is weird because the number of restrooms seems proportional to CPA, and there are fewer chances during two hockey intermissions versus at least 16 breaks at baseball. 

Timed intermissions are not the only separation, as baseball and hockey are opposite ends of the pro sports calendar. Having an outside plus-sized day game at the ballpark for an indoor winter evening sport like hockey gives us some interesting insights. They are points that extend to other winter sports too, like eventually NBA basketball returning to Seattle.

View looking down on people moving down a crowded street lined with food trucks, with police watching in the foreground.
View north on Occidental Avenue from T-Mobile Park and the NHL Winter Classic. It wouldn’t be a Big Event unless the SPD hid a sniper installation somewhere. This part doesn’t have to move across town. (Ray Dubicki)

Bringing Light and Playfulness Across Town

Daylight alone changes the feel of being in the city, and the sports seasons are impacted by it. It’s easy to hit a bar and grab food during the summer when it’s daylight during the baseball game, and possibly after. (Thank you pitch clock.) The party on Occidental Avenue is normal for 81 home baseball games. Having the party for hockey, along with the (still packed) Fan Village, were only accessible because the Winter Classic was a noon game that ended by 3pm. 

The ease of enjoying ourselves around the ballpark for the hockey game was notable. We take for granted the easy outdoor party for baseball in the summer. That it isn’t available to a regular weeknight hockey game is suddenly kind of crushing. And, by extension, it wouldn’t be for a returned Sonics team who would also be playing through the Dark Wet Seattle winter.

It goes beyond event stuff or bar hopping. Just taking a child to the game is challenging. It’s difficult to move through the city with a kid at night, use transit, and find appropriate places to grab a bite to eat. The kids see all of the troubles that people experience on the bus. The few bars that are open don’t let them in. During the summer, we can walk a few blocks to catch the next ride, find a food truck, or even huff it home. Not as easy in January. We’re not going to see a weeknight hockey game START before sunset until we change the clocks again. 

The area around Climate Pledge has slowly improved since we declared it not ready for the Sonics a year and a half ago. Restaurants have opened further into the neighborhood, including filling gaps on Roy Street and 1st Avenue. Transit leaving the games is still irregular and slow, but the 1st Avenue bus lane is almost, sometimes obeyed by car drivers.

Two tacos with rice and dipping sauce with a remarkably pale beer next to them.
Beef Birria Tacos at Dos Chamucos Taqueria on the corner of Queen Anne and Mercer near Climate Pledge. Solid pre-game food that’s quick and cheap. Well, Seattle cheap. (Ray Dubicki)

Unfortunately, Uptown is still a lot of long walks into nothing. Seattle Center is a post-game deadzone on two sides of the venue. The renovation of Memorial Stadium doesn’t look to correct that. One Roof Foundation, an offshoot of the Oak View Group that built CPA, promises a “student centered non-commercial” approach to build “a stadium in a park” to replace the Seattle Schools’ aging stadium. That might not be what the area needs if it’s more closed gates at night.

While the neighborhood slowly picks up, eating inside the arena has become more difficult. I have spent a lot of words declaring CPA’s food to be top notch. I will still stand by my assessment that they’re giving top notch effort trying to be interesting. Pricy seats have amazing choices, vegetarian options are bountiful, and nontraditional chowders and potatoes are tasty. 

Unfortunately CPA is getting the basics wrong. The snack shelves look picked over at the beginning of every game and shrinkflation has hit the bagged popcorn HARD. The prevalence of grab-and-go makes the Kraken’s permanent home feel as temporary as no-drafts, all cans at the winter game in the ballpark. Ice cream is still difficult to find and removing the souvenir cups wrecks any easy options for kids. The super greasy burger place right at the front door makes CPA’s beautiful atrium smell terrible. And the pizza at the arena doesn’t stand a chance next to MOTO at the ballpark. There’s like five pizza places at CPA, including a Ballard Pizza Company outpost. Nope, not a chance. 

International Fountain at Seattle Center is lovely, but a significant walk to pass as the nights get longer and wetter. (Doug Trumm)

Winter Classic Cocktail Thinking

Bringing the Winter Classic to Seattle was a coup for the team and the city. If this event is just the end of 2023, the sight of the Mariner’s home diamond transformed into the Kraken’s home ice could be a worthy capper to a pretty interesting year in Seattle. 

Or it could be the start of something even more incredible. The Winter Classic was an amazing chance to find unexpected delights in different places. Having the icy winter night sport brought out into open air daylight shows us some of the things we didn’t know we were missing. An Occidental Avenue style pedestrian plaza stretching into Queen Anne or Uptown. More cheap hot chocolate and snack options. Liveliness and affordability to be more inviting to families. That’s when the city will be ready for the Sonics to return.

Designating New Years Day as the beginning of something new isn’t easy. It rings too much of resolutions, and we avoid those. Instead, let’s say that the Winter Classic gave us a brand new cocktail, a surprise mix that we’re going to spend the year perfecting. A little bit more baseball around my hockey, in the hopes of ending up with a great place for basketball too.

Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.