Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Evening at the Sprint Center: NHL Exhibition: Los Angeles Kings vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Enough with the gripes and complaints, already, people. The National Hockey League is not coming to Kansas City anytime soon, and that has nothing to do with Tim Leiweke or AEG. Really, it doesn't.

I tweeted Randy Covitz earlier, and in doing so, I was mistaken. Apparently, last night's NHL exhibition contest featuring the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins was a record crowd for Kansas City hockey. By 494 people. I sent that tweet, because I swear that announced attendance at that Blues/Blackhawks game was 18,000+, but I've been wrong before, and I'll certainly be wrong again.

What I'm not wrong about is that the dose of professional hockey Kansas City is currently getting -- in the form of the Central Hockey League's Missouri Mavericks, just down the road in Independence -- is all the metro area will be getting for years to come.

Eleven years ago, Paul McGannon formed the grassroots NHL 21, whose primary initiative was to bring an NHL club to Kansas City. At that time, it was a brilliant plan, and the organization continues to work hard to, as they say, "cultivate Kansas City for the NHL." But, at that time, the league landscape was much different.

The Dallas Stars had just won their first Stanley Cup, seven years after moving from Minnesota. The Colorado Avalanche, a mere five years relocated from Quebec, would win their second championship a season later. The following season, it was the one-time Hartford Whalers coming in as runner up, followed by the not-that-young-of-a-franchise Anaheim competing in the Finals, the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning winning it all, and then of course, the lockout.

In each of the previous four seasons, clubs with long-time tenures in their initial cities have been in the finals on both winning and losing ends. Thus, the days of significant franchise shifts are likely behind us. Sure, the Atlanta Thrashers just moved to Winnipeg, but Winnipeg had an interested buyer, and Atlanta -- a city mind you, that already failed once in its NHL endeavors -- was not supporting the club.

So, it's easy to get riled up about Leiweke's quotes, and even easier to point the finger at the Sprint Center's "failures" regarding event management. These, my friends, are not even small bones. They're microscopic.

A few people were caught outside while the game began? Big deal. The venue fixes that first with an anchor tenant. Long lines at concession stands? Didn't we hear those now-stifled gripes after Kauffman Stadium was remodeled?

What matters is what the people in and around Kansas City think about the sport (and thought about the contest) in a global sense. And for the most part, people are far from centered enough to comprehend the two-tiered concept that would make an NHL franchise successful in Kansas City for the second time: single-game and season tickets.

With the September the Kansas City Royals have produced, and with the start to the season the Kansas City Chiefs have not, folks on Twitter and on the radio are rolling out the old this-is-a-baseball-town carpet for the first time in a while. That's fine. It very well may be. Folks continue to purchase mildly significant numbers of season tickets, and, by and large, single-game tickets are something that many, many Kansas City families have always invested in and will continue to do so because this is a game on which our country was raised.

In the '90s, Kansas City was mad-scientist crazy for the Chiefs. The team was good, and fans had not had that experience in over two decades, if ever. Throughout most of the Herman Edwards regime, attendance at Arrowhead fell to talks-of-blacked-out-games for the first time since the '80s. And that's an American sport with a franchise with over four decades rooted in Kansas City. What, then, would make anyone think that, in the event the NHL grants Kansas City a franchise (Editor's Note: They're not going to, plain and simple.), this town would support it?

I'm embedded in the Kansas City hockey community. I know guys that run the youth programs, I know rink managers, I volunteer for the Mavericks, and I've played with the majority of adult rec-league skaters for over a decade. Even in that community, even in the form of a company owner who was a significant sponsor for last night's game, are people that think Kansas City has to continue to turn out large numbers, if not sell them out, for these exhibition contests because that translates to league awareness.

In the end, they don't matter. Not one bit. Mostly they don't matter because the league is not going to award the city a franchise, or even promote it as a locale for a club that's interested in relocation. There's simply not enough confidence to suggest that the city could support it.

So attendance last night broke the record by 500 heads. How many of those people were given free tickets? How many of those people were bombarded by package deals presented by NHL 21 and companies like QuikTrip who had the $99 four-pack (tickets, sandwiches, etc.)? How many people had die-hard NHL-in-KC fans buy tickets and take their friends free of charge in hopes of hooking them on the in-game experience?

The answer: a lot.

What's more, of the families in attendance, most of them, by both sight and sound, were cheering for the Penguins. These kids had signs and cheers and no, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a Sidney Crosby jersey. How many of these fans were aware (of the slim chance) that Crosby might not play again? How many of these kids are aware that team owner Mario Lemieux used this very venue as leverage for his own new building in Pittsburgh? And how many kids are aware of the surprise run that the Kings just displayed this past post-season? That club was the bigger (of the two) story in the playoffs.

The answer: not many.

Regarding the Crosby thing, it's of course good for the game that in Kansas City people know who he is, but what they don't know is that the clubs they saw on the ice last night were two and three tiers removed from those that the Pittsburgh and L.A. franchises will put out on the ice each night this season. For Dennis Dodd to call that a "thoroughly entertaining preseason game" is silly.

That game was mostly flat, full of turnovers, and bereft of true NHL talent. What's more is that there was zero appeal or investment to actually root for a team you come out and support 41 times a year. And the fans in attendance were representative of said lack of appeal.

They were there for novelty. They chatted with their kids and their friends, fiddled around with their phones, asked questions about the game to those around them, and blindly cheered on the Penguins. Since when do Kansas Citians cheer for eastern-conference teams?

While folks remain enamored with the new Kansas City-hockey-attendance record, the one truth that's been written is that many seats were empty. Folks were strolling around, perhaps waiting in lines for concessions -- an easy fix if a franchise actually did come to town -- perhaps trying to entertain their uninterested children, and leaving early in packs of significant numbers.

Last night and this morning, people were posting things of the following nature on Facebook: this pointless story, this dumb picture

I call dumb only because I'm sure thousands cheered the Pittsburgh victory, and my favorite photo caption of all, "Don't have a clue what I'm watching, but it's fun!!!"

As for ourselves, we left at the conclusion of the second period solely because of our nine-month-old in tow (Note: Yes, that'd be her pictured above the jump.), and the fact that it was over an hour past her bedtime. We went, though, because we wanted to see how good the Sprint Center ice-hockey experience looked. For the record, it looked great. The ice appeared to be in good shape, the event had plenty of intermission entertainment, and all the perks of a pro-sports event. They were each a touch rough around the edges, but like the entry lines and the concessions, easy fixes. In sum, though, The Sprint Center didn't blow it.

What's not an easy fix is the current state of possible NHL franchise relocation, let alone expansion. By and large, clubs are staying put, and none will soon call Kansas City home.

You may, if you choose, continue to direct your negative energy toward Leiweke and AEG, or you could look at the positive: Kansas City did not build a tax-payer-funded venue that sits empty and aging, and its downtown revitalization has not been a failure, both of which were distinct possibilities voters feared five and six years ago.

If you're going to crease your forehead over hockey in Kansas City, however, your energy is better spent being compassionate with the unchangeable facts about the National Hockey League, and even more so, recognizing that Kansas City might be a baseball town. It might be a football town. Heck, for all we know, it's a soccer town. One thing is for sure, though, and that's that a hockey town it is not.

If it wants to become one, there's a ton of growth that needs to happen first, and it's the kind of growth that has zero to do with chances and promises.