Long Island or Kansas City? Give me a break, it's no contest

September, 23, 2009

If you build it, he will come.

Turns out, it doesn't seem to ring true for hockey fans in Kansas City.

Picture this, if you will: The New York Islanders were playing an NHL preseason game Tuesday night in Kansas City, the city most often mentioned as a future home for Charles Wang's hockey team if he can't get his Lighthouse Project plan off the ground on Long Island.

Wang was not in Kansas City on Tuesday. He was back home at a zoning hearing for the Lighthouse Project, fighting yet another battle to get the NHL club a refurbished home. What perfect timing, you might say, for the puck-loving folks in Kansas City to steal the spotlight and show their love for Mr. Wang's team.

Ah, no.

How about a half-empty rink. Officially, 9,792 showed up in the 18,000-seat Sprint Center. Brutal. Nice way to show your interest.

I know it's preseason hockey, I know John Tavares wasn't in the Islanders' lineup and I know Zack Greinke was bolstering his Cy Young Award campaign in K.C. with a gem against the visiting Boston Red Sox. All reasons to help explain the low turnout.

But, to me, that should not have mattered. This is about optics. Your city has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible NHL home, most often as a possible future home of the Islanders. A sold-out Sprint Center would have rammed the point home that your city is a bona-fide alternative for Wang should he finally decide to cut the cord in New York.

Wang apparently has set Oct. 3 as some sort of deadline for the folks on Long Island to fish or cut bait on the Lighthouse Project.

One interested spectator in K.C. on Tuesday was none other than Tim Leiweke, governor of the Los Angeles Kings (whose team beat the Islanders 4-2). He's also the president and CEO of AEG, a company owned by Philip F. Anschutz, the owner of the Kings. It just so happens AEG also runs the Sprint Center. Leiweke rarely makes a road trip with the Kings, but in this case, he surely was hoping to run into Wang and espouse the virtues of the $276 million Sprint Center, which opened in the fall of 2007 and still doesn't have a major tenant.

From all accounts, the Sprint Center is apparently gorgeous. Some Islanders players and staff even took a tour of it after their morning skate Tuesday.

"I think everyone would like to have a place like this," Islanders forward Jon Sim told Newsday. "But we definitely love Long Island. That's home."

The Islanders were last in NHL attendance last season, so one could argue, Why not at least play in a nice, new rink in front of lackluster crowds in K.C. instead of playing in a dump in front of lackluster crowds on Long Island? But I say this: Show the folks on Long Island a good product, and they will come out. There are four Stanley Cup banners hanging in Nassau Coliseum. These fans know their hockey. There's a buzz with Tavares on board, and things are possibly looking up.

Long Island or K.C.? Give me a break, it's no contest.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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