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Kansas City has holes to fill before it can become an NHL expansion destination

Kansas City's Sprint Center is an NHL-ready building, but what else needs to happen in order for the city to become an expansion option?

In less than two months, after what has been a two-year process, the Vegas Golden Knights will kick off their inaugural NHL campaign. The expansion franchise’s first season will mark the first time the league has had 31 teams, it will mark the first additional Stanley Cup competitor since the 2000-01 campaign and spark a new era in the league’s history.

But the one thing it won’t do — and hasn’t done — is squash the talk of further expansion or potential relocation.

Since the NHL officially announced Las Vegas as the home of the league’s first expansion franchise in more than 15 years, reports and speculation about additional franchises in other cities have been a mainstay in the rumor mill. The possibility of putting a team in Seattle, for instance, has been at the forefront of both expansion and relocation talk for the better part of the past two-plus years, with the city’s arena situation a must-watch for those interested in league business. Additionally, Quebec City, which pursued and failed to land an expansion franchise, has consistently been considered as a site for relocation, tied to the Arizona Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes at various points throughout the past few seasons.

However, it appears Kansas City, the former host of the NHL's Scouts that drew some interest in June 2015 as the NHL requested $500 million fees to begin the expansion process, can be considered another city of interest when it comes to the league’s potential growth.

In a recent interview with Dave Caldwell for ESPN, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly noted that the league has spoken with “potentially interested stakeholders” from Kansas City in the past and added that if the league were to look into expansion in the future, Kansas City would be evaluated and considered under “the right circumstances.”

"Kansas City has never been entirely 'off our radar screen,'" Daly told ESPN via email.

One reason for that may be that, unlike Seattle, Kansas City may actually be more prepared to house an NHL team at a moment’s notice. In his response to ESPN, Daly said the NHL generally seeks to check off three boxes: an arena, a market that will support the team and a “qualified and interested” owner. Questions can be raised about the latter points, but one that can’t be denied is that Kansas City is much more like Quebec City than Seattle when it comes to having a facility in place.

While it may not be comparable to the state-of-the-art Videotron Centre in Quebec City, which opened less than two years ago, the Sprint Center in Kansas City is a decade-old building that is capable of an attendance of 17,500-plus. That would put the Sprint Center ahead of other NHL arenas such as the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Honda Center in Anaheim, Bridgestone Arena in Nashville and Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg in terms of seating capacity. Granted, it would still be on the low-end, ranking among the 10 smallest attendance capacities in the league. However, Daly told ESPN that the Sprint Center “certainly checks off the first of those boxes” on the potential expansion checklist, and it will get another taste of NHL action on Sept. 28 when it's the backdrop for a pre-season tilt between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues.

But what about the other two boxes?

When it comes to supporting the team, Kansas City has shown, at the very least, an ability to support a minor league team over the past several seasons. The Missouri Mavericks, who will become the Kansas City Mavericks in 2017-18, have spent the eight seasons in the region, the past three of which have been spent as an ECHL franchise. Over that time, Kansas City has supported the club to the tune of 5,000-plus fans per game in each of the past three campaigns, though that number has dwindled over the past two years. In 2014-15, the Mavericks averaged 5,317 per game, dipping down to 5,154 in 2015-16 and 5,068 this past season, but attendance remained in the league’s top-seven each campaign.

To hear Mavericks owner Lamar Hunt, Jr., the son of late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, tell it, Kansas City needs to develop an even greater hockey following in order to really make an NHL team work. In speaking with ESPN, Hunt, Jr., said youth programs would need to grow, and he told the Kansas City Star in July 2015 that he wanted the team to make a push to draw in more millennial fans. Doing so would potentially build a bigger fan base not just for the Mavericks, but for the game. If that happens, it would give an NHL team a bigger base to draw from and greater support.

But none of it will matter if Kansas City can’t check off the final box, which is ownership, and that may be the trickiest of all. Because even if an owner does have interest — and it seems as though Hunt, Jr., would be among those who could — there’s still the matter of possible expansion fees and the uncertainty of making NHL hockey work in the market. In that same Kansas City Star piece from July 2015, Hunt, Jr., called the NHL’s $500-million asking price “a ridiculously big fee,” and he added at the time that he wasn’t aware of anyone in Kansas City who was willing to put up the money to join the NHL’s expansion process. It’s true, too, that no one from Kansas City put in a bid. Said Daly to ESPN: “We opened a formal expansion process in June of 2015 and we did not receive an application for a Kansas City franchise.”

Maybe things chance in the next few years, though. If Kansas City can remain on the radar and continue to build support through the youth game, bringing a team back to the city may seem much more viable than it does at the moment and their may be ownership support for doing so. But until that time comes to pass, Kansas City may simply remain another locale tossed out whenever these expansion and relocation discussions arise.

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