This past spring, during the Seattle Kraken’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the 2-year-old franchise found itself with an influx of new fans: readers pouring in from the BookTok community on TikTok. How did it happen? Months earlier, in February, a hockey romance book called Icebreaker, by Hannah Grace, made the New York Times bestseller list, and it has been there since. Like Colleen Hoover’s novels, Icebreaker became a viral hit on TikTok, beloved by fans of the hockey romance subgenre that’s popular on the platform.
Then that fandom got into watching hockey, likely thanks to the timing quirk of Icebreaker’s popularity leading into the NHL playoffs. BookTok latched onto one team in particular: the Kraken.
It’s been a fun club to follow. The Kraken made a surprising playoff run in their second season, taking out last year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche, in the first round. From there, the Kraken took the Dallas Stars to an exciting Game 7 before ultimately being defeated. Everyone loves an underdog, and the Kraken are a flashy new team that’s fun to watch. That’s part of the appeal, but BookTok also latched on to several conventionally attractive players — namely, forward Alex Wennberg — and their gyrating warmup stretches. When the Kraken’s social media team realized that people were making fancams of Wennberg and other players, it started playing into the fandom, making its own fancam-esque videos of its players’ arena entrances.
BookTok’s whirlwind hockey obsession did draw positive attention to hockey as a sport, inviting fans who otherwise might not have known they’d be interested. But a handful of fans have taken things too far, treating players as if they are characters in the abstract, not actual humans. Here’s how we arrived at the controversy that’s gone viral in the past week.
Where did things go wrong with the Seattle Kraken and BookTok?
Arguably, the problems began when a small minority of BookTokers started sexualizing hockey players, and relating them to their favorite romance characters. And the Kraken’s own social media team fanned the flames. It felt similar to other high-profile parasocial relationships, like when the internet thirsted for The Last of Us actor Pedro Pascal — the fixation on Pascal as “daddy” often veered into uncomfortable territory.
As TikTokers became fans of the Seattle Kraken, some BookTokers “face-claimed” — which is similar to fancasting — Wennberg and other hockey players for the character Nate Hawkins in Icebreaker, as well as characters in other hockey romances.
This sort of behavior started to spiral when the Kraken’s social media team posted a ton of thirst content about the team’s players. While other hockey clubs did post BookTok-specific content, the Kraken were, by far, the most aggressive one. Team social media administrators have an increased level of access to players and their likenesses, and there’s an assumed level of trust between a player and their organization in using that to promote the team. When a team’s social media manager posts even vaguely sexualized content about their players, it can be taken as a kind of consent — and can egg on that sort of behavior, and more, online.
Emily Rath, author of the Jacksonville Rays hockey romance series, explained in a 10-minute TikTok video why this sort of abstraction of players, especially by social media teams, is a problem. “You should not treat your employees with the same level of abstraction as the fans do,” she said.
Over the past week, Alex Wennberg’s wife, Felicia Weeren, posted Instagram stories about the sexualization of her husband and other players. Weeren said that while she herself has joked online about Wennberg’s TikTok fandom, she feels that some people’s comments and videos have crossed the line into “predatory and exploiting” territory. “What doesn’t sit right with me is when your desires come with sexual harassment,” she wrote. Wennberg later published his own statement regarding the backlash Weeren received for writing about her discomfort with the situation.
“The aggressive language about real life players is too much,” Wennberg wrote. “It has turned into daily and weekly comments on our personal social media. This is not something we support or want our child to grow up with. All we ask for is a little respect and common sense moving forward. We can all take a joke and funny comments but when it turns personal and into something bigger that effects our family, we need to tell you that we’ve had enough. Enough of sexual harassment, and harassment of our character and our relationship. Thank you for your understanding.”
The Kraken have now deleted all references to BookTok from their TikTok page; it’s unclear when this happened, but it appears to have been done in response to players’ discomfort with the posts. The organization has not responded to Polygon’s request for comment.
How has BookTok responded?
There is no representative for BookTok, nor is there one for its hockey romance subset. But it does seem like this behavior came from a loud minority of the overall fandom. Rath, in her 10-minute video, said she estimated that the sexual harassment encompassed 1% of hockey romance fans on the app, whereas 99% of fans are normal people who love hockey romance — many of whom were brought into loving hockey as a sport, too.
One particular BookTok influencer, Kierra Lewis, has been outspoken about her part in the Seattle Kraken controversy. She was flown out to a Kraken playoff game and given a jersey emblazoned with “BookTok,” with her content seemingly endorsed by the club’s social media team. In a TikTok posted after Weeren published her initial statement, Lewis accused the Kraken and others of using BookTok to promote themselves and “get clout,” only to later discard the community. She added that she was upset to discover that the Kraken’s social media team has distanced itself from her, seemingly for her overtly sexual content about hockey players. (Lewis was photographed at the game holding a sign that read “Krack my back,” for instance.) Lewis also said that everything she’s posted is a joke.
There’s a subset of BookTok that’s defending Lewis’ role in everything — claiming that the Kraken owe BookTok for their success — while some people say they’ve been uncomfortable with her content, as well as others’ sexualization of athletes. The debate is reminiscent of that around the ethics of fanfiction featuring real people. Hockey players don’t have the same celebrity as, say, top basketball players, but they are accustomed to some fame. This fame makes it easy for people to form parasocial relationships — and the perceived consent of organizations like the Kraken only adds to this.
Whatever your feelings are, the Kraken BookTok controversy has proved that at least some professional athletes are uncomfortable with the sexualization of their likenesses, and that some of the fandom has crossed a line. Any consent, perceived or not, has been revoked, at least by some players.