September 05, 2008
Paul McGannon knows that for his organization to achieve its dreams, someone else's are going to have to be crushed. And he's acutely sympathetic to that fact. "Because I had a team taken from me," he said.
McGannon is the president and owner of NHL 21, a private Missouri corporation that advocates for the return of the National Hockey League to Kansas City through the relocation of a current franchise, or through NHL expansion. He was a die-hard fan of the Kansas City Scouts, who spent a brief two seasons in the city (1974-76) before relocating to Denver as the Colorado Rockies; he's been fighting to give Kansas City another shot for decades.
"The lesson learned is: Hang on to your team," he said.
NHL 21's signature event is the annual preseason game it hosts in Kansas City. On Sept. 22, the St. Louis Blues will face off against the Los Angeles Kings at the Sprint Center, which is owned by the Kings' parent company AEG. "The idea is to draw big crowds, turn the heads of the NHL league offices and hopefully get a relocated or expansion team," said McGannon.
The success of these games has elevated Kansas City's status as a potential NHL city. In 2003 at Kemper Arena, a sellout crowd of over 17,000 watched the Blues beat the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blues and Predators sold 12,000 tickets just 59 days after the lockout. This month's game will be the first hockey game at the Sprint Center, so the lofty expectations and equally high stakes are firmly in place.
All of which led to some controversy recently about what the Kings would be contributing to this game. But when it comes to the NHL's potential return to Kansas City, controversy reigns.
Tickets for the exhibition game are available ($25.00, $50.00, $60.00, $75.00, $150.00), and the promoters are now aggressively beginning to market not only the matchup but some discount packages for families.
But will it be a marquee matchup? The Kings are actually scheduled for two preseason games on Sept. 22: One in Kansas City and another back in Los Angeles against the Phoenix Coyotes. While the Kings aren't exactly the 1980s Oilers when it comes to star power, the lack of players like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown or Jack Johnson could have put a damper on the exhibition game. The Kansas City Star bristled at the idea of a split-squad coming to town:
The Kings will bring about 60 players to training camp, which opens Sept. 19, but teams can suit up only 20 for a game. So having two games will enable the club, which has a new coach in Terry Murray, to give twice as many players ice time.
Split-squad situations are not totally unheard of in the NHL, but this is the only one scheduled this season. The NHL requires a minimum of eight veterans to appear in a preseason game, and players who were first-round picks qualify as veterans, so the Kings will meet that criteria in both Kansas City and Los Angeles.
The Kings' Luc Robitaille assured Kansas City fans that LA's top players would play against the Blues. McGannon said he received the same guarantees early in the process. "We were assured from day one that AEG wants to put their best foot forward," he said
The Kings and Kansas City are both linked via AEG's ownership; a relationship that has led to another uncomfortable controversy for the city's bid for NHL hockey. And his name is William "Boots" Del Biaggio.
After the Pittsburgh Penguins appeared close to moving to Kansas City in 2006 -- something team owner Mario Lemieux now claims was simply a bargaining ploy -- attention turned to another struggling franchise, the Nashville Predators. Owner Craig Leipold wanted to sell; among his suitors was William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, a California venture capitalist who publicly expressed a desire to relocate a team to AEG's arena in Kansas City.
Leipold, heavily courted by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, decided to sell the Predators to a group of local owners. Local save for Del Biaggio, whose minority stake in the team gave the group enough capital to purchase the franchise.
Immediately, there was speculation that Del Biaggio would eventually attempt to achieve whatever Manifest Hockey Destiny he saw in Kansas City by moving the Predators there. This was all but confirmed in July, when word leaked that he was trying to gather investors that "could gain majority control [of the Predators], serving their agenda to buy a hockey team and locate it elsewhere" as early as 2010. Of course, by that time, Del Biaggio was exposed as an alleged fraud and faced a federal investigation. Which would make his future ownership of a team in Kansas City rather unlikely.
McGannon had been counting on Del Biaggio as a potential owner, telling Metro Sports in May that he thought Boots would "eventually end up in Kansas City once the Nashville situation either resolves itself and (the Predators) stay or it doesn't resolve itself and they move."
McGannon now says that Del Biaggio wasn't a necessary component to hockey's return to Kansas City. "I think it's fair to say that he had an exclusive arrangement with AEG. They're the owners of the building. You'd probably have to talk with them," he said. "We're turned the page on all that, because we had nothing to do with that. The deal was concluded in Nashville. Our understanding was they were going forward in Nashville."
Is he confident there's still enough local money to own an NHL franchise, without a cash infusion from an AEG ally like Del Biaggio?
"I don't know if it would be local," he said. "The Chiefs and the Royals are not owned locally. Where we are is that I'm very confident that ownership, local or otherwise, would have interest in Kansas City."
Why Kansas City, again? That's a question Evan Weiner of the New York Sun asked last year when analyzing KC and the other often-mentioned future home of NHL hockey, Las Vegas:
Kansas City is a different kettle of fish. The market may have reached its saturation point in terms of economic strength even though the mayor, Kay Barnes, and the city council went ahead and partnered with AEG in constructing a new downtown arena that will open this fall. Most of the dollars earmarked for sports spending in the Kansas City market go to the NFL's Chiefs. Jackson County, Mo., taxpayers approved a sales tax hike in 2006 to renovate Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums, which should already bring the city's NFL and MLB teams more revenue.
Kansas City is a small TV market as well and will not get the cable TV dollars that even Minnesota, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh generate. But with customers now paying big prices for tickets, an NHL or NBA team would get most of the revenue generated in the arena from luxury suites, club seats, and concessions instead of the city, which put up funding for the building. It's the only way a team could survive in Kansas City.
Indeed, the premium ticket story in Kansas City is one McGannon's eager to tell.
"We were waiting these last two years with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators scenarios playing out. But really we have gotten on the map with the new Sprint Center, which opened in October of '07. The 72 suites are all sold out. There's a Founders' Club for premium events and premium seating, and those have sold out," he said. "What's left is to find either a relocated team or an expansion team, and that's going to be up to the Board of Governors."
NHL 21's case to the NHL is rather clear: That Kansas City deserves a second chance at professional hockey, just like the ones Denver and Atlanta have earned. McGannon explained that facet of the case to Metro Sports:
Dallas was like Kansas City. It had Central Hockey League for many years and drew 2,000-3,000 people. Now they sell out the Dallas Stars. Then you look at Nashville, which had a team before the Predators, and they're a city with a million fewer people than Kansas City. Kansas City is a major-league market. We have the National Football League here. We have Major League Baseball here. To get casual hockey fans, you need to be a major-league city. Sprint Center is a major-league facility. To me it begins and ends with a NHL team. That's all we're focused on.
Then there's the geographic argument. "You can go up to our airport in Kansas City, and in an hour or an hour and a half be in seven different NHL cities," said McGannon, citing potential division rivalries with teams like the Blues, Predators and Blackhawks. "The players would love that, we would love that, and the fans, as you know, travel."
Expansion may seem the likeliest option for Kansas City, but there are those who believe the fan culture in the town wouldn't have the patience for the foundational building process that goes with it.
Relocation talk will turn up the usual suspects like the much-maligned Florida Panthers. But I decided to throw McGannon a curveball when it came to finding a current NHL team for the Sprint Center:
Have you guys ever given any pie in the sky thought that if a team doesn't come down the pike in the near future, the Los Angeles Kings might split their home schedule between Kansas City and Los Angeles?
The silence that followed was a measurable one; the kind of dead air you hear on C-SPAN in the morning when a caller on the independent voter hotline claims that both presidential candidates are being controlled by an army of fascist hamsters.
I had either just given this man an overwhelming spark of inspiration ... or the hockey equivalent of a fascist hamster.
"No," he said, sternly. "That ... that ... no. What you're talking about would all be league matters, and strictly up to the league. We would probably like our own team. But we don't care how we get there -- we just want to get there."