When the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues clashed in Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs a few weeks ago, it created a certain critical mass for Steve Stegall, owner of The Blue Line hockey bar in the River Market.
While “my Blues and Blackhawks fans aren’t really happy with each other,” he said, what he estimated was a thousand of them amiably enough shared space that included spilling into the streets.
When police came to gently restore order, Stegall said he “pushed everybody back up so they were like sardines on the sidewalk.”
The crowds haven’t been quite the same since the happy convergence of the NHL teams with the most active local fan bases.
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But it’s still been bubbling over all postseason, dominated now by Blues fans supported by staff clad in Blues-influenced gear and using a horn to set up “Let’s Go, Blues” chants.
“Hockey in Kansas City,” Chaz Rothenberg, wearing a Buffalo Sabres hat, said smiling as he walked out of the bar Sunday night.
That’s not the only example of the game’s apparent growth and visibility here in recent years.
The Sprint Center has lured a number of NHL exhibition games, with the Blues and Washington Capitals to meet this fall. And the Stanley Cup playoffs typically draw good TV ratings in this market.
Lamar Hunt Jr.’s Missouri Mavericks of the ECHL are a New York Islanders affiliate playing at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence. They average more than 5,000 fans a game.
Hunt Jr. is intensifying his investment with plans to bring a top-level amateur team to Overland Park at the proposed 6,000-seat sports arena in the BluHawk development.
“This will complete the picture that we started when we bought the Mavericks,” Hunt Jr., who also has worked to galvanize regional youth hockey, said last week. “We wanted the affiliation with an NHL team. We wanted to make the playoffs with the Mavericks. We wanted to unify youth hockey in Kansas City. And now this is the top level of junior hockey in the United States.
“It fits very well along the growth path of hockey in Kansas City.”
Such as it is.
Forty years since the NHL’s Scouts left for Colorado (and later New Jersey) after two slapstick seasons, and nearly 10 years since the Sprint Center opened, nothing on the horizon suggests the realization of the NHL or NBA anchor tenant touted by AEG when it sold the project.
The Sprint Center is among the busiest arenas in the nation, and no doubt has been a major factor in the rejuvenation of downtown Kansas City.
It’s a perfect venue for the Big 12 basketball tournament and concerts and any number of other things, and bet it will be a terrific showcase for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.
This is all very good, because it’s just not going to be weaving in a new resident soon.
Certainly, 31 years after the NBA’s Kings left for Sacramento, there is no sense now of NBA prospects here.
And it safely can be surmised that the NHL has little thought about returning to this market in the near future despite whatever polite contact it maintains with local interests.
The landscape for that might even be seen as barren, per a Business Journals’ 2015 report that rated Kansas City a zero on a scale up to 100 in a ranking of potential NHL markets.
Moreover, the NHL likely is focused on gaudier new targets — such as Las Vegas, which has secured more than 10,000 ticket deposits for a prospective expansion team. Seattle and Quebec City also are considered intriguing possibilities if the NHL opts to proceeds with expansion.
As for Kansas City, when expansion applications were extended last summer, Hunt called the NHL’s $500 million price tag for a franchise “ridiculously big” and said it wasn’t on his radar.
The same seemingly can be said of whether there is any local oomph to try to secure a restless franchise, a route that has failed a few times already.
Meanwhile, the Sprint Center itself is precluded from seeking ownership, reminded Brenda Tinnen, the building’s general manager and AEG senior vice-president, because Phil Anschutz (as in Anschutz Entertainment Group) is the owner of the Los Angeles Kings.
Facing the question of applying for expansion generated conversations at a “very high level,” she said, about whether there was anyone “interested at that time in (being the financial backer of) an expansion team for Kansas City.”
“And just unfortunately,” she added, “there was no one with the wherewithal and the financial backing to (respond to) that request.”
Then there is this:
While Tinnen says she stays in touch with the NHL and pursues what she called “due diligence,” an email from Sprint Center spokesperson Shani Tate-Ross outlines a management agreement stating that since 2012 “the city of KCMO has primary responsibility for pursuing an anchor tenant at Sprint Center.”
Or, as Tinnen put it: At this stage per the contract, it’s up to the city to “do everything it could to attract the anchor tenant if (the city) were interested or had an owner.”
The city would seem to have many more important things to do just now, so it might be assumed that this is where we are:
“I’m a dreamer,” said Paul McGannon, who formed NHL21 as a grassroots organization to try to lure hockey back to Kansas City.
The only glimmer of hope would seem to be in the form of Hunt Jr.
“Everything we are doing is with the intention of growing hockey in Kansas City,” he said in an email to The Star on Monday. “The way fans are responding shows that Kansas City has the potential to be a great hockey town. We are a long ways off from supporting an NHL team, but my hope is that one day, it could be a possibility.”
Trouble is, he also makes a good case for why it would be hard to make work.
To have and sustain an NHL franchise, he told The Star’s Eric Adler a few months ago, “would require three extremely important buckets to fill.”
There are complicated different aspects to each of those — season tickets, corporate sponsorships and a local cable television deal — but Hunt Jr.’s reservations can be well summed up this way:
“I don’t think Kansas City can fill those buckets up,” he said. “You would need $100 million in revenue to … have a legitimate hockey team business in Kansas City. …
“I think it is an unrealistic reach at this point.”
Whether “at this point” is a key term or not remains to be seen.
In the meantime, at least The Blue Line beckons.
Until further notice, the bar recently rated among the top 51 hockey bars in the world by something called “PondHockeyBrew.com” is the focal point for NHL hockey in Kansas City.