KANSAS CITY — Kansas City, Terry Nichols says, is ready once again for big-time hockey.
As the general manager of a suburban ice-sport and fitness center that draws an estimated 300,000 people annually, many of them hockey players from around the world, Nichols feels uniquely qualified to cast this cowtown and its gleaming new downtown arena as a place where the National Hockey League can thrive.
“Hockey is the best kept secret in Kansas City, and sooner or later it’ll get out,” says Nichols, who operates the Ice Midwest facility in Overland Park, Kan. “Our business is incredible. There’s not enough ice in town.”
The Sprint Center will open Oct. 10 with no big-league team to call it home. More than a year of searching hasn’t produced a major franchise, despite some high-profile flirting with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and more recent efforts to pry the Predators from Nashville.
But the Predators signed a letter of intent Wednesday to sell the team to a local group of investors trying to keep the team from leaving town.
What that likely means is the Sprint Center’s first sporting event will likely be the College Basketball Experience Classic tournament on Nov. 19 and 20. In early 2008, the arena will be the site of the Big 12 basketball championship and, later, games for Kansas City’s arena football team, the Brigade, and a host of concerts and stage shows.
What it doesn’t mean is that the search for an NHL or NBA tenant is over. Far from it, advocates say.
“We’re continuing to talk with more than one franchise with the NBA and the NHL to bring a team to Kansas City,” said Michael Roth, a spokesman for Anschutz Entertainment Group, the company managing the arena and responsible for finding a team through relocation or expansion.
Roth and others involved in the search have routinely refused to say which teams they’re pursuing, though Kevin Gray, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission, says the NHL and NBA remain options for the title of anchor tenant.
“Right now, hockey seems to make the most sense,” Gray said, joining others who say Kansas City is behind Oklahoma City and other markets vying for the NBA.
Whether it’s hockey or basketball, some believe the Kansas City market isn’t ready for another major-league franchise. A 2006 study by Bizjournals.com ranked Kansas City as the fifth most overextended pro sports market in the country, claiming the market’s $77 billion in collective personal income is too small to support the three big-league teams it already has, the NFL’s Chiefs, baseball’s Royals and Major League Soccer’s Wizards.
The study also noted the city’s failure to keep the NBA and NHL teams it had in the past.
Kansas City was home to the NBA’s Kings from 1975-85 and shared the team with Omaha for the three years before that. The Kansas City Scouts also had a short stint with the area from 1974-76, before the NHL team moved to Denver and became the Colorado Rockies, and, now, the New Jersey Devils.
Area hockey fans, however, have a different take on Kansas City’s ability to support the NHL.
“Kansas City is a hockey town. People just don’t know it yet,” said Nichols, whose Ice Midwest is home to the University of Kansas ice hockey club and the Kansas City Stars Youth Hockey Association, whose AAA Tier-1 team finished third in the nation last year.
So it’s little wonder that the attention of Nichols and other hockey fans has turned to the Nashville Predators. Reports surfaced in late June that Predators owner Craig Leipold was considering selling the team to San Jose, Calif.-based venture capitalist William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, who has an agreement with the Sprint Center to own any NHL team that moves to the arena.
But Wednesday’s developments may ice those plans.
The last time Kansas City got that close, the deal fell through.
In March, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to stay put even after Kansas City officials offered the team free rent and half of all Sprint Center revenues. The proposal failed but nonetheless demonstrated Kansas City’s seriousness and put the city in a prime position the next time a club considers relocation.
“A lot of the pieces of the puzzle are in place,” Gray said. “The future certainly bodes well for our community and the arena.”
With or without a major franchise, Sprint Center officials expect the arena to be a profitable centerpiece of Kansas City’s revitalized downtown.
Arena spokeswoman Shani Tate Ross said the arena “will be profitable regardless of the tenant situation,” although, “obviously when you have those additional 40 dates, you do better.”