Lamar Hunt Jr.: Faith, forgiveness and hockey

Lamar Hunt Jr., owner of the Missouri Mavericks, greeted the team, including Kane Lafranchise, after a recent win over the Quad City Mallards.
Lamar Hunt Jr., owner of the Missouri Mavericks, greeted the team, including Kane Lafranchise, after a recent win over the Quad City Mallards. RSUGG@KCSTAR.COM

Out on the ice, the professional Missouri Mavericks hockey team, an undefeated juggernaut at home, suddenly found itself on the defensive.

By all rights, 25 games into their season and battling in their third game in three days, these young Mavs should have been exhausted, their lungs burning, muscles spent. Blades gouged the surface. Sticks cut through the air as the Quad City Mallards plowed, on this evening in late December, toward the Mavericks’ net. Then, one minute into the second period, there was a flick of a stick …

Goal! Inside Independence’s Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, while some 5,000 fans momentarily turned silent at the score — Mavs down 2-1 — the one fan who literally has more invested than anybody else barely stirred and turned characteristically thoughtful.

“We have rarely trailed this year, so this is good — see if we can fight back,” said Lamar Hunt Jr., adding that sometimes “you need to know you have some limitation. … I think sometimes you learn more from failure.

“That said, I want to win the championship. We don’t want to just make the playoffs. We want to go deep.”

Lamar Hunt Jr., owner of the Missouri Mavericks, talks about life and the excitement behind his local hockey team.

In a two-hour interview as the game went on, Hunt, 59, the team’s owner, would have no problem going deep in conversation about his life even as his eyes stayed fixed on the action. Just as the puck veered in every direction, so the talk coursed into territory as personal as the influence of his father to the responsibilities of wealth, from the anger he felt after the death of his alcoholic stepfather, to forgiveness, and even to his own past sins.

“We’re all sinners,” he would later say. “We all need help at different times in our lives. Everybody does.”

A former flutist with the Kansas City Symphony, Hunt is the eldest child of one of sports’ most influential figures, the late Lamar Hunt, who was born into a Texas oil dynasty.

By the time the senior Lamar Hunt died at age 74 in 2006, he had used his fortune and lifelong love of sports to bring the athletic world not only Major League Soccer and the World Tennis Championships, but also the American Football League and the Dallas Texans, which he then brought to Kansas City and renamed the Chiefs. He coined the term Super Bowl.

Last Saturday, when the Chiefs played on the road against the New England Patriots in pursuit of Super Bowl 50, Hunt Jr. was there as the only one of his father’s four children who calls the Kansas City area home, his being a million-dollar house in Hallbrook.

All of Lamar Hunt’s children from two marriages — Hunt Jr. and sister Sharron, from his first marriage, and Clark and Daniel Hunt from his second — share financial interest in the Chiefs and other Hunt family holdings. Clark, a former Goldman Sachs analyst, is chairman of the Hunt Sports Group and the face of the Chiefs. Brother Dan is president of the professional soccer team FC Dallas.

These days, the namesake — who some in the past might have reasoned would have carried the family’s football mantle — is instead carving a name for himself on ice.

“He never wanted to run the Chiefs,” said James Arkell, Hunt Jr.’s son-in-law and executive vice president of Loretto Properties, where he helps Hunt manage his holdings and charities. “Clark was born and raised to do it. Oh, I know. Everyone knows. He (Hunt) never had any desire to do it.”

Nor was it ever in Hunt Sr.’s plans or, Hunt Jr. said, his own.

“No, no,” he said. “You know, that’s a hard one to say. Because, if I look back in retrospect, I could say, ‘Yeah, that would be a cool thing.’ But it wasn’t something that was talked about or anything like that. Because it was my dad’s deal, and he made the decisions. I was in my 20s. We went down the paths we went down — studying and going to music schools and stuff like that. So that’s what I thought I was going to do, indefinitely.”

Last February, using not Hunt family sports money but instead his own resources through what he calls Loretto Sports Ventures, Hunt bought the 7-year-old Mavericks. It’s an AA-team in the ECHL, the former East Coast Hockey League. Since Hunt’s ownership, the team has become linked to the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders as well as the Islanders’ feeder team, the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers of Connecticut.

“He wanted something of his own,” said Arkell, who is married to Hunt’s oldest child, Sarah. “Honestly, this is why he did it: His grandkids, my kids, come to almost every game. His kids come to the games. He gets to sit there with his arms around them. He gets to have fun. This is why.

“The Chiefs are fun. It’s great. But when we go to the Chiefs game, my kids — they don’t know any better — there’s security, they’re followed around by cops. Here, they can run around. Grandpa lets them throw cotton candy. This is minor-league hockey.”

So now, just as Clark Hunt is the button-down image of the Chiefs, Lamar Hunt Jr. has become the face (propped recently atop a bobblehead) of his own franchise 8 miles east of Arrowhead Stadium. Besides his business and leadership roles as owner, he has become an avid greeter of fans, standing for countless selfies. He has personally called season ticket holders to urge them to sign on for another year.

“He’s in our locker room almost every game, especially after the game,” said coach Richard Matvichuk. “He knows the players by their first names, which, at this level, is huge. … He’s one of those guys, he’s very soft-spoken, but everyone listens. He has power behind him. He is very influential. And he is a smart man.”

His goal is not to make Kansas City home to a future NHL team, the finances of which, he said, don’t make sense for this market. Instead, he aims to stoke interest in the Mavericks while adding more ice rinks to the area as part of growing youth hockey on both sides of the state line. It’s part of his effort to make Kansas City the kind of hockey town that — despite a 50-year, on-and-off history with the sport on a professional level — it has never quite managed to be.

He is also a man — understated and bespectacled, more closely resembling his father in looks and demeanor than any of his siblings — who thinks deeply about the forces and influences in his life.

Finding faith

On this Sunday before Christmas, the same day the Chiefs defeated the Ravens in Baltimore 34-14, Hunt left his family to their holiday errands (they normally accompany him) and showed up by himself at the Mavericks’ arena.

“We’re a little thinner in attendance than we’d like to be,” he said as he settled into his open-air suite, “but this is really a pretty good crowd.”

In short time, the conversation would turn from hockey to purpose. Indeed, as the teams clashed — with the Mavericks taking an early lead, then falling behind, then battling back to even — he spoke frequently about the single force, his faith, that has come to influence most of his life. He spoke of God and, in particular, his conversion to Catholicism, which over many years, he said, has grown to guide his actions.

“I would say my orientation would be toward God,” he said when asked if he believed any purpose informed his life. He answered as he did throughout the night, casually, with ease, rarely taking his eyes off the game.

“Loving God, and loving your neighbor,” he said, “that would be my orientation. That would be my desire for my life.”

Briefly, and in a later interview, Hunt would touch on one of the most painful parts of his life, a sexual encounter he had with a sister-in-law that — to the shame and consternation of the Hunt family — became public in 1999 after a confessional letter that Hunt wrote to his first wife, Jocelyn, became the crux of a civil suit.

Hunt doesn’t deny the encounter. “I mean, I just did what I did,” he said. “I acted like a bad boy.”

But he also insists that, although it was deeply regrettable, it was consensual and he did not, as was alleged in the lawsuit, sexually assault his sister-in-law. At the time of the civil case, which ended in a settlement for undisclosed millions of dollars, Hunt and his wife of nearly 20 years were going through a rancorous divorce.

“Here’s what I would say,” Hunt said. “Lawyers sometimes get control of a narrative they want to get ahold of to leverage it and hurt people.”

He explained: “It was a very sad and painful time in my life and in my former spouse’s life. Our marriage was collapsing. … Out of that came hurt and pain. I tried to own my failures in the marriage. That’s what I was trying to do.”

He conceded that the pain generated by the split reverberated through the family for years, certainly into the lives of his children. What healing has occurred has taken years and come hard.

“But, you know,” he continued, “as people of faith, we need to move forward. I could have imploded or, you know, whatever. But I chose not to. By the grace of God — it’s all by the grace of God — I said, ‘Look, how can I move forward in the right way and do the next right thing?’ That’s what I’ve chosen to do.”

It was a devotion, he said, that grew with time. Though born in October 1956 to Lamar and Rose Mary (Whittle) Hunt, Hunt Jr. and sister Sharron, who is two years younger, were primarily raised by their mother and stepfather, Texas businessman John Carr.

Lamar and Rose Mary Hunt had been sweethearts in Dallas, meeting when she was 16 and he was 19. They attended Southern Methodist University together and married young in January 1956. When, in 1960, Hunt Sr. began the American Football League, his travels and busy schedule took a toll on the young wife caring for two small children at home.

The couple divorced in 1962. Hunt in 1964 married Norma Knobel, a schoolteacher who also worked as a hostess for the fledgling Dallas Texans. Clark Hunt, soon to turn 51, was born in February 1965; Daniel arrived in 1976.

Although Hunt Jr. saw his father often, “it was not a day-to-day thing,” he said.

At his own home, life was far from perfect. Raised Methodist, he was educated at a private, all-boys Episcopal high school. He still remembers the words of a teacher who once told his parents, “He’s really not being all he should be,” mostly out of laziness.

“I guess I was a kid who was fairly sensitive and took it to heart,” Hunt said.

It was real trauma, he said, that first spurred him to step alone into a Catholic church.

“For me, when my stepfather died,” said Hunt, meaning around 1983. “My stepfather was a terrible alcoholic. That was the first time I said, ‘Look, I really need to go somewhere to pray for him.’ I don’t even know why I understood that. I was 26, 27. That was the first time in my life I went into a Catholic church on my own and prayed for another person.

“I was angry at him.”

His stepfather had never been physically abusive, he said.

“I would call some of it emotional,” he said. “And some of it was more that he was checked out. He was more depressed. He never physically did anything. He just kind of gave up.”

Hunt said that as a teen in high school, he didn’t drink. He didn’t do drugs or toy with them.

“I thought it was dopey,” he said. “I never have done it. Honestly. Never tried it. Never did it.”

He stepped into the church.

“I don’t know if I was asking to forgive him,” Hunt continued. “I was just praying for him. I remember being angry with him, thinking, ‘Why? Why did he do this to himself?’ … I just didn’t understand it.”

Hunt’s first wife was Catholic. When, also in 1983, the couple had Sarah, the first of their seven children together, he chose conversion, finding what he called the “beauty of the Catholic faith.” Hunt’s second wife, Rita, whom he married in 2003, is Catholic and has two children of her own.

“I think I liked the part — a lot of Catholics don’t like it,” Hunt said of confession, as the Mavericks coursed back and forth on the ice, “but I think confession is important — being able to confess and talk to another human being, obviously a priest, and understand God’s mercy and forgiveness. That is what God is about. And experiencing that in my life.

“I remember somebody saying it’s like you’re in a pool, and you’re in a water fight, and someone is on your shoulders. And you’re moving around in the pool. The person comes off your shoulders and you’re like … light. You’re free. And that’s what confession is like. It just frees you, acknowledging you’re a sinner. You’ve failed. Relationships have failed. You’ve failed other people. You’ve failed God. But there is forgiveness and restoration. You can keep going and fight the good fight.”

The very act of revealing one’s sins before another goes beyond ritual, he said.

“It’s an act of humility. God already knows what you’ve done,” he said. “As Mother Teresa has said, sometimes out of humiliation comes actual humility.”

‘Pass your blessing on’

It’s his Catholic tenets, Hunt said, that have come to guide another big part of his life: charitable giving.

Through his Loretto Foundation, he supports at least 20 organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Catholic Charities, City Union Mission, the Good Samaritan Center of Excelsior Springs, Community Housing of Wyandotte County and Ozanam, which serves at-risk kids.

Hunt is providing deep support to the Bright Futures Fund run by the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The fund helps low-income children and raises money for Catholic schools, mostly in the inner city. He and Rita donated $3 million toward the support and construction of St. Michael the Archangel High School in eastern Jackson County.

“I think the greatest thing one can do for a kid, or anybody, is to introduce them to God,” Hunt said. “I have a priest friend who says, ‘Life is short. Death is certain. But God’s love is everlasting.’ And I think that’s kind of a sobering way to think about it. What does happen afterward? I know people will argue and fight about that. But the simple answer is, ‘Do you want to do good here?’

“We know what good is, and what good things are.”

When Hunt approached the Mavericks as a buyer, he figured it was good.

Businesswise, the team was already profitable. Although he never played hockey, he recalled going to Dallas Stars games with his father. Like his father, he played football. When he came to Kansas City in 1983, it was to join the symphony, which he did for nine seasons. He also taught at the conservatory at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“I think the people who know me, or any of us,” he said of the Hunt family, “say we must have been hardwired for sports.”

The Mavericks were well-run, he said, but he saw potential for growth, having the full intention of being far more than a checkbook, hands-off owner.

“Sports for us is not passive,” he said of his entire family. “We’re not passive ownership at all. We’re very active. I need to know every player. I need to know the major transactions. I’m interested in especially these guys as people.”

He pointed to a few on the ice and talked of others: Rocco Carzo, who, after hockey, is looking to become an occupational or sports therapist; Jesse Root, recently sent up to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who went to Yale and works in money management in the off-season; Kane Lafranchise:

“He makes good passes, always,” Hunt said. “He basically plays one year here, one in Europe, and I think then he wants to go into marketing and sales.”

As the game continued, Hunt visited guests in nearby suites, mock-boxed with the Mavericks’ mascot and crawled over the partition between his suite and the one next door to pose for yet another group selfie.

“Depending on how this ends, I’m going to go to the locker room,” he said, then paused. “No, it doesn’t matter.”

As if on cue: Score! Mavericks 3-2, with only minutes left. Hunt left his suite and made his way down to the ice, standing in the area behind the Mavericks’ goal.

Ice sheets like this are actually rare in the Kansas City area. There’s the Carriage Club off Ward Parkway, another inside the Silverstein arena in Independence, the Kansas City Ice Center in Shawnee and the Line Creek Ice Arena in the Northlandnorth Kansas City off Northwest Waukomis Drive. Part of Hunt’s strategy this past year has been to help coalesce divergent ice hockey leagues for kids under 18 into one unified Kansas City Youth Ice Hockey Association. Hunt is now working on building support to add at least two more ice rinks to foster tournaments, interest and hockey culture.

“Does he need the aggravation of owning a minor league hockey team? No. But he’s willing to do what it takes to grow the sport in Kansas City,” said Tom Tilley of Overland Park, an investment banker who also played for four seasons with the St. Louis Blues of the NHL. A longtime youth hockey coach, he is a hockey director for the new association.

“There’s no ego there, either,” Tilley said of the Mavericks’ owner.

Among other plans: Hunt said that Kansas City has already secured the rights to add a franchise from the U.S. Hockey League to the area. The USHL, with 17 teams, is the country’s top junior hockey league for amateur players age 20 and under. Securing a team requires a venue with at least 3,500 seats. Hunt said he is working on that, as well.

“I would say what my dad impressed on me, mostly, was to create opportunities for people,” he said. “Create employment opportunities, create businesses, create those things.

“We’ve been blessed so much: the Hunt family; my brothers, Daniel and Clark; my sister, Sharron. We’ve all been blessed so much. When you’re blessed, you pass your blessing on, is the simplest way to say it. You can only have so many things in life.

“My dad used to say people, relationships, are much more important than material things. He was right. He was actually a fairly simple guy. He really was.”

Seconds left. Another goal! Mavericks 4, Mallards 2. Still undefeated at home.

As the players filed off the ice and lumbered into the locker room, Hunt waited at the door, smiling and giving fist-bumps to his team.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler