September 23, 2008
"I can't think of any reason this doesn't work here ... Kansas City has the best arena without a hockey team in the world. I didn't look at this as an audition game (for the NHL). I'll bet we have as many in here tonight as we have in LA. Preseason hockey the first couple of weeks in any market is a bit of a trick." -- Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, after last night's Los Angeles Kings/St. Louis Blues exhibition game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
There are a few different declarations in the quote above. The first is that the Sprint Center in Kansas City is a state-of-the-art arena that's ready for an NHL team. That's hard to dispute. Kings defenseman Tom Preissing raved about the atmosphere, and the arena left an impression on the teams involved on Monday evening.
The second is that last night's game wasn't an audition, which of course is ridiculous because any game in a potential expansion/relocation site is just that. But the facility passed the test, from the impressed players to the suite holders that were dazzled during their first taste of NHL hockey in the building.
But as a potential NHL fan base ... well, if Kansas City did pass, it was by a narrow margin.
The premium, $150 tickets were sold out. But the announced crowd was 11,603, which was fewer than expected. The NHL mandate for recent expansion teams was a season-ticket base of 12,000. Paul McGannon of NHL 21, a private Missouri corporation that advocates for the return of the National Hockey League to Kansas City, believes the exhibition game was within the margin of error.
"We were only off 400. That's probably within the ballpark," he told me this afternoon.
There were some reasons for the game's lackluster attendance. Foremost, it was on a Monday night. "If we have that game on a Friday or Saturday or even a Sunday afternoon, it'd be sold out," McGannon said. "We feel we did very well. We're going to take it as a victory, and we've applied with Sprint Center and AEG to have our next game on Oct. 3 (2009), which is a Saturday."
The organizers also had to sprint to the finish for this game at the Sprint Center -- only getting their advertising in high gear by Labor Day.
But McGannon added another factor at play here. "I'm going to be very, very honest with you: We have a very knowledgeable hockey base, and no matter what you say, it's the first game in camp and look at the rosters that came here," he said.
The rosters were missing players like Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Brad Boyes and Keith Tkachuk -- despite guarantees from the Kings that their top players would participate in the Kansas City game. (Los Angeles did bring No. 1 pick Drew Doughty, who hopefully stayed away from the rib joints in town.)
"And there you have it. It is what it is," said McGannon of the rosters. "Give our hockey fans credit in that they're very educated, very smart."
St. Louis Game Time had an on-site report from a fan about the KC fans:
Went to the first exhibition game tonight in KC - the Sprint Center was buzzing with excitement over having the first hockey game in the new facility. According to Yahoo, almost 12,000 fans - nice feeling to see so many people in KC excited about hockey (and something other than KU basketball). I was impressed with how most of the fans got into the game - though, many of those folks were obviously STL transplants like myself. Of course, there were many indicators that KC isn't exactly used to hockey - the ushers were all given large red stop signs to hold that said "Wait! Puck in Play!" and others wore Sprint Center hockey sweaters - I wasn't aware that our new arena had a team...and saw one KC scouts sweater, which I'd never seen before.
So was last night a success or failure for the NHL in Kansas City?
It was a success.
Forgetting the general attendance -- and yes, Winnipeg, we know you'd have sold this game out in 30 seconds -- the Sprint Center had, and has had, stellar corporate support from the community; which, as we know from Nashville's plight, is essential.
On top of that, the game gave the city a large bully pulpit for Leiweke to slam home the message that the good soldiers at the Anschutz Entertainment Group would like nothing more than to bring the NHL back to Kansas City in a spiffy, revenue-generating arena. And his words were carried everywhere from the Kansas City Star to throughout Canada via the CP and TSN.
Backed by the deep pockets of AEG, Kansas City has elbowed its way into the forefront of the expansion/relocation debate. This game certainly keeps it there.