Kansas City Has Edge In NHL Pursuit
April 13, 2006 -- Paul Doyle -- Hartford Courant

A new 18,500-seat downtown arena will open in the fall of 2007. All 72 of the building's luxury suites have been sold. There is no professional sports tenant, but there is a waiting list for corporate suites.

The building will be operated by Anschutz Entertainment Group, an investor in the arena. The company, led by Philip Anschutz, also owns the Los Angeles Kings, so there is a link to the inner circle of the NHL.

No wonder Kansas City officials are so optimistic about landing a hockey team.

"No doubt," said Paul McGannon, president of the civic group NHL21. "I consider Kansas City the No.1 option. That's my opinion. ... To me, it all adds up to Kansas City being the No. 1 candidate."

The pursuit of an NHL team will be the focus at the ninth Whalers Fanniversary rally tonight at 6 in the Civic Center atrium. Developer Lawrence Gottesdiener, the man who is trying to put a team into a new downtown arena in Hartford, will speak about his quest to purchase a team.

But while Hartford's effort is burgeoning, other communities are on the same track. Les Alexander, the owner of the NBA's Houston Rockets, has talked about relocating a team to his city and was close to purchasing the Edmonton Oilers in the 1990s. Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg, has said he would like to bring a team back to his city.

No city, though, appears as primed as Kansas City. The new arena is part of a $2 billion downtown redevelopment project and there is a strong desire to make the NHL the anchor tenant.

"We have a group that is passionate about the sport," said Kevin Gray, president of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission. "That's what you need. You need to have a group willing to get out front and do what it takes in terms of selling the market."

The NHL21 civic group, which includes about 100 business leaders, was formed four years ago, before the new arena was a certainty. They began by luring the NHL to Kemper Arena for one exhibition game a year and McGannon has done all he can to ingratiate himself with NHL officials - he has attended the draft, Stanley Cup games, and makes a point of being visible at St. Louis Blues games.

Of course, one of the league's owners is tied to Kansas City's pursuit. Anschutz Entertainment Group invested $50 million in the construction of the $250 million Sprint Center. The company will run the arena and is assisting in the search for a tenant.

Anschutz, who owns the Kings, has been a conduit between the league and the community.

"It's just a huge advantage," McGannon said. "They know the hockey business. They know the industry. They're the 800-pound gorilla. ... We're so blessed to have them as a partner here, because they know the industry inside and out. And they're so well-connected."

An industry source who asked to remain anonymous said the world of professional sports is insulated and difficult to puncture from the outside, so Kansas City has an advantage.

"The expression a lot of these owners and teams use is `In the tent,'" the source said. "If you have somebody who's already in the tent, it certainly makes it a lot easier ... so clearly, one would suspect, when there is going to be a relocated NHL team, there is going to be serious consideration given to Kansas City."

It was through Anschutz that Howard Baldwin became connected with Kansas City. Anschutz is a former partner of Baldwin and the company has financed movies for Baldwin.

When Baldwin initially spoke of bringing the NHL back to Hartford a few years ago, he was also talking to officials in Kansas City, which had an NHL team for two seasons in the mid-1970s. Baldwin's efforts in Hartford have been overshadowed by Gottesdiener, but he is still talked about as an ownership option in Kansas City.

The new arena will be the home to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and there was sentiment to put an NBA team in the arena. But McGannon insists hockey is a growing sport in the region and he believes the NHL is a better option, even though it is not a traditional hockey market.

Gray said the sports commission is staying neutral. The city would welcome an NBA team, but Gray admits the market cannot support both professional basketball and hockey.

"I do think there is passion and there is interest in hockey," Gray said. "Now the question is, can you translate that throughout a season. We think so."