Sunday, December 31, 2006

Kansas City courtin’

Have rink will take team!

That could be the ad seen soon in newspapers across North America, as Kansas City’s Sprint Centre nears completion. The plan is that if a team is granted to Kansas City for the start of NHL season in 2007 then the rink will be ready with all the latest whistles and bells, the luxury boxes and supposedly a stable base of season ticket holders who have forgotten the horrid days of the Kansas City Scouts.

The new rink comes on line at a convenient time for the deep pocketed would be owners, with the most exciting team of the future Pittsburgh, going through the throes of a broken heart and dream, Kansas City might be the obvious destination for the Pens.

It does seem that the NHL is anxious to return to the scene of one of its most glorious flame outs, the Scouts became the Rockies, who in turn couldn’t make it in Denver and eventually became the Devils, Stanley Cup champs and still second or third banana (depending on the year) to the Lords of Madison Square, the Rangers.

Even if the Pens don’t sign on the dotted line, KC probably has a shot at any number of struggling franchises in the Sunbelt states, places where hockey is very much a foreign game and one not likely to ever be a turnstile turner.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided a rather in depth look at the city and moneyed men that have their covetous eyes on their Pens.

Kansas City makes way for the Penguins or any team available
Sunday, December 31, 2006
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

KANSAS CITY -- Just as surely as the game clock in hockey counts down to zero, the time is almost at hand for those who have toiled for years to bring an NHL team back to the nation's heartland. And the way the stars align in the hockey universe, the time left for the Penguins to get a new arena in their home city is ticking away.

Three decades after a team called the Scouts failed to survive in Kansas City, all the elements are in place for a hockey revival within a matter of months. The lease for the Penguins, born in 1967 in the only place they have called home, expires in June.


Or is it the ultimate motivation to cobble together a Plan B after years of inaction in Pittsburgh?
Or is it just leverage for franchise owners to get the sweetest possible deal?

Time will tell.

Work crews are hoisting the glass facade into place on the new, $276 million Sprint Center, which is on schedule to open in the fall of 2007 if the city secures a franchise. A heavy-hitter in the arena business, Anschutz Entertainment Group, will manage the arena with former Penguin Luc Robitaille serving as its point man. Financier William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, a former Penguins suitor, is under contract and ready to commit up to $200 million to buy a team to occupy the new arena. Luxury suites are already sold out, and the framework for buying club seats and season tickets will be announced in January.

"The pieces are coming together," said Paul McGannon, who for years has led a grass roots effort to give the NHL a second chance in Kansas City. "We feel we're at the top of the list of any city looking to attract a hockey franchise. Kansas City is a big believer that sports teams are people magnets to bring people Downtown. A lot of people have not been Downtown in years, because there was no reason to come Downtown."

As the final pieces of glass, steel and concrete come together to complete this city's ambitious plans, local officials can't help but be aware of what's going on with the Penguins. Kansas City has an arena but no franchise while Pittsburgh has a franchise free to move if a long-discussed arena deal doesn't materialize.

When Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. failed to get a slots license despite a signed agreement to build a $290 million replacement for Mellon Arena, Penguins' owner Mario Lemieux pulled the team off the market. With the blessing of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whose position all along had been to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh, the Penguins are now able to pursue options in other cities in case a Plan B fails to produce a suitable arrangement.

As Sprint Center general manager Brenda Tinnen told The Kansas City Star: "Let's just say it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."

Indeed. Kansas City has no intention of actively going after the Penguins. It doesn't have to. If the franchise falls into their laps, they'll feel like kids on Christmas morning.

"Our best approach is to mind our own business. We're not going to meddle," said Mr. McGannon, who heads an effort called NHL21. "There's no need to lobby. We don't want to take anything away from anybody. We know what it was like to lose a team and have to work 30 years to get one back. We want to add to the sports landscape in Kansas City. We don't want to be a pawn or a bargaining chip. We want what's best for Kansas City."

Sad story of the ScoutsThe brief history of the NHL in Kansas City is one of failure.

The Kansas City Scouts were born during an expansion era but lasted only two seasons. The team won a total of only 27 games, and with sluggish support from fans, left in 1976 to become the Colorado Rockies, which later became the New Jersey Devils.

The city also had a National Basketball Association franchise called the Kings, which were born as the Cincinnati Royals. The team left for greener pastures in 1985.

But anyone who thinks history disqualifies the city as a viable option for hockey would be in for a surprise. For one, the region's population has grown by about a million since the Scouts left. And the effort to bring back hockey is led by some impressive players.

"The Scouts were a God-awful team. We felt like we were never given a chance to have it succeed here. It's a new sport now, and we're a new city," Mr. McGannon said.
After years of talking, and after seeing the downtown area decline as businesses and residents fled, Kansas City got serious about hockey about five years ago when civic leaders decided on a makeover.

The Sprint Center is part of a $2 billion effort to lift the city up out of the blight of its cowtown past. It anchors one end of a nine square block area being turned into office centers, urban condominiums, a convention center expansion, a performing arts theater, restaurants, bars, a grocery store, boutiques, parking garages and an entertainment district.

The debate over the most ambitious building project in the city's history was as spirited as it was in any U.S. city. But keeping the status quo of empty store fronts and surface parking lots was not an option.

Not only is the Sprint Center earmarked for an anchor tenant like an NHL team, city officials expect it to be in use 200 nights year, offering concerts, circus dates and ice shows.

With the building having emerged from the ground, it doesn't seem like such a pipe dream anymore. Consider the principals involved.

Los Angeles-based AEG anted up $54 million toward the new arena. AEG president Tim Leiweke is president of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, sits on the NHL board of governors and has a stake in the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers. AEG operates arenas, soccer stadiums and sports venues both in the U.S. and abroad.

It was AEG that hired Mr. Robitaille, the highest scoring left-winger in NHL history and a former linemate of Mr. Lemieux's, to be the public face of hockey in Kansas City.

In November, AEG entered into an agreement with Mr. Del Biaggio to operate an NHL team at the Sprint Center. He also has an option to join the arena's management team.

'Boots' has deep pocketsAt 39, Mr. Del Biaggio heads a banking empire that has $1 billion in assets, and he is the founder of a California firm that provides venture capital for high-tech companies.

Penguins fans may recall him as the man who nearly purchased the Penguins in the summer of 2005 when the NHL was emerging from a year-long shutdown as it addressed its economic woes.

Mr. Del Biaggio was set to buy the franchise for about $120 million and had pledged to keep it in Pittsburgh. But when the Penguins won the right to draft hockey prodigy Sidney Crosby, the team was taken off the market, and Mr. Del Biaggio's bid fell through. Within months, the Penguins were once again for sale, in part because there was no deal for a new arena.

Mr. Del Biaggio has a limited stake in the NHL's San Jose Sharks. He is also partners with Mr. Lemieux, Mr. Robitaille and Mike Eruzione in the ownership of the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League. Also of interest is that he and Mr. Lemieux are golfing buddies.
Mr. Del Biaggio politely declined to comment on the Kansas City situation as it might relate to the Penguins.

"I don't want to see it play out in the newspapers," he said in a telephone interview from his offices in Menlo Park, Calif.

But Mr. Del Biaggio said his intentions were correctly stated in The Kansas City Star. He loves hockey and wants to be an owner, and he has committed to owning a team in Kansas City regardless of what the Penguins do.

It shows how quickly fortunes can change in the sports world. Mr. Del Biaggio nearly bought the Penguins before they had Crosby and a nucleus of young stars. If a Plan B doesn't work out in Pittsburgh, he may still get ownership of a franchise with the brightest of futures.

But there's a process to be worked through in a short period of time.

Pittsburgh is still very much in the picture if Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Gov. Ed Rendell can come through on Plan B. That process must play out as the Penguins explore alternatives. Their lease at the Mellon Arena, the oldest and smallest arena in use by an NHL team, expires in June but the NHL would want to know before that so it can put together its schedule for next season.

Nobody knows what's going to happen until Mr. Lemiuex and Mr. Bettman decide what's best. They won't know until they weigh the numbers in Pittsburgh against what other cities may be offering.

All 72 luxury suites at the Sprint Center have been sold, and there is a waiting list for those wanting to buy a suite. Deposits on season tickets could be banked soon after plans are announced next month.

If Kansas City makes an offer to move the Penguins, Mr. Lemieux could use it as leverage to broker a better deal than Plan B -- which requires the Penguins pay $8 million up front and pay $4 million a year for 30 years, for a total of $128 million. Those amounts are said to be negotiable, which means the Penguins would pay less.

Now the clock is ticking down to some kind of conclusion. Will the Penguins stay in Pittsburgh with a last-minute deal? Will Kansas City's second chance at a franchise come gift-wrapped with a stable of budding stars who could parade the Stanley Cup down Broadway? Will another city emerge to give the Penguins a new home?

"That's up to the powers that be," Mr. McGannon said. "We want to help grow the sport of hockey. Our goal all along has been that, when the time is appropriate, we'll have an NHL team in Kansas City. It's taken us 30 years to get to this point. It's been a soap opera, but we want a team."

The above post first appeared on my HockeyNation blog, for more items about hockey check it out.

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