Kansas City still trying to stay in the conversation for future expansion

The sparkling, 10-year-old Sprint Center can house 17,500 fans for hockey -- and will host a preseason game between the Blues and Wild next month -- but doesn't have a practice facility. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Looming in a suburban parking lot just off Interstate 70, some 16 miles east of the gleaming, 10-year-old Sprint Center in Kansas City, is the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, which serves, for now, as the area's mecca for professional ice hockey.

The Sprint Center, with a seating capacity for hockey of 17,500, is scheduled to play host on Sept. 28 to an NHL preseason game between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. After that, area hockey fans will have to get their fix at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena with a capacity of 5,800.

The arena is home to the 8-year-old Kansas City (formerly Missouri) Mavericks of the ECHL, which is two levels down from the NHL. The team averaged 5,068 fans last season, 89 percent of capacity and seventh in the 27-team ECHL, and has gained a perch in the city's sports landscape. It will become an affiliate of the NHL's Calgary Flames and AHL's Stockton Heat beginning with the 2017-18 season, coming off a two-year agreement with the New York Islanders.

For two seasons in the 1970s, Kansas City had an NHL team, the expansion Scouts. Sprint Center would seem to be an attractive venue for another NHL team, especially because the NHL could use a 16th Western Conference team after adding the Vegas Golden Knights this year. But so far, Kansas City has been left behind.

Mavericks owner Lamar Hunt Jr. is the 60-year-old son of Lamar Hunt -- the late and legendary founder of the American Football League, coiner of the phrase "Super Bowl" and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs -- and would love to see the NHL return to town.

Lamar Hunt Jr. can still recall seeing his first NHL game. He and friends from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music drove to Philadelphia in 1976 to, among other things, watch the Philadelphia Flyers. He remembers seeing Flyers captain Bobby Clarke win a fight.

"Hockey, for me personally, is something you have to take in live," Hunt said during a recent interview at the Mavericks' offices at the arena.

He bought the Mavericks, formerly of the Central Hockey League, in February 2015, because he regarded minor league hockey as viable in Kansas City. The NHL is a different story. To get to the big-league level, maybe, the Mavericks will have to continue to seed interest at the ground level.

"Our analysis is that we really have to grow the youth programs here," Hunt said. "We have to have more sheets of ice."

The Kansas City Youth Hockey Association was formed in July 2015 by merging six area associations into one governing body. Hunt is one of five members of the executive board. There are plans to build an arena for a junior team in the amateur USHL in Overland Park, Kansas.

"It was a very fragmented market -- very territorial and political, and with limited resources, you really weren't putting a capable team on a national level," said Brent Thiessen, the Mavericks' general manager.

The team changed its name from the Missouri Mavericks to the Kansas City Mavericks this season to promote a sense of regional pride. "When you think of hockey in the state of Missouri, you think of one spot on the other side of the state," Thiessen said, referring to St. Louis. "It's putting Kansas City on the hockey map, if you will."

They still have a long way way to go to draw the investors and corporate sponsors -- let alone a bigger fan base -- needed for the area to support an NHL team. The Sprint Center is beautiful, but it does not include a practice facility.

Hunt was quoted in July 2015 as saying the $500 million NHL expansion fee was "ridiculously big," and in a recent interview, he said, "It wouldn't just be a franchise. There would be a lot more that would go into it, and it would be a challenge for this community."

But that is not to say that Kansas City is not interested in the NHL -- or vice versa. The city-owned Sprint Center, for one, is operated by Anschutz Entertainment Group, which co-owns the T-Mobile Arena -- home of the Golden Knights -- with MGM Resorts International.

"Kansas City has never been entirely 'off our radar screen,'" Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, wrote in an email to ESPN.com. "We have talked to potentially interested stakeholders in the past, and it's certainly a market that in the right circumstances (including a desire by our board to entertain further expansion), our league would fairly evaluate and consider.

"In evaluating potential locations for NHL teams, we typically look at three things: One, whether the market has or is building a suitable arena facility; two, the demographics of the market and whether they suggest an ability to support an NHL franchise; and, three, whether there is qualified and interested ownership to own and operate the franchise.

"While the Sprint Center certainly checks off the first of those boxes, the other two issues remain a work in progress.

"We opened a formal expansion process in June of 2015 and we did not receive an application for a Kansas City franchise. Further, we have never studied whether the market demographics of Kansas City are likely to be suitable for an NHL franchise long-term because there has not yet been a need to do so."

The Kansas City Scouts played two seasons at Kemper Arena (capacity 17,513), averaging 7,356 in the 1974-75 season and 7,892 in the 1975-76 season before the team was sold and moved to Denver, where it became the Colorado Rockies. (And then, in 1982, the New Jersey Devils.)

The task was made tougher for the Scouts and the other expansion team that debuted at the same time, the Washington Capitals, because the nascent World Hockey Association diluted talent and led to bidding wars for players. The Scouts went 12-56-12 in their second season, winning just one of their last 43 games.

"Things really came apart in the second year," said Jay Greenberg, who covered the Scouts' first season for The Kansas City Star. "They were underfunded and underperforming, and they did not put a lot of money into promotions or advertising, and ultimately, the second year, the minority owners decided they weren't going to pay for it any more."

Steve Marantz, who covered the Scouts for The Star during the team's second season, wrote in an email, "A well-managed NHL or NBA team could do well, if ownership was committed, patient and built its brand. The Scouts proved only that a poorly managed, uncompetitive franchise in two seasons could not win over the city. If the NHL can make it in Nashville and San Jose and Columbus, why not in K.C.? No reason, really. Nothing endemic to K.C. precludes a successful hockey franchise."

Hunt, who grew up watching every sport imaginable, said any ambitious owner would like to see a project like this climb to the very top. But he also quickly added, "We want to do the very best job we can in the arena we're in."

And that arena will be the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, for the time being. The Sprint Center will make do early this NHL season by playing host to Janet Jackson, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, plus an NBA exhibition game and some college hoops.