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Sprint Center buzzes for first hockey game as Kings beat Blues 2-1

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - An organist played Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" as the fans streamed into the Sprint Center an hour before the opening faceoff, many in St. Louis Blues jerseys, some in throwback Kansas City Scouts shirts.

A handful were still in business suits, there to see a hockey game for the first time.

They came to see a pre-season game between the Blues and the Los Angeles Kings, one of eight Monday night in the NHL. Many of the marquee players were missing; half the Kings were in Phoenix for another game, St. Louis skated without defenceman Erik Johnson and goalie Manny Legace.

Anyplace else - in the U.S. at least - a game like this probably isn't a big deal.

In Kansas City, it was.

Davis Drewiske had a short-handed goal in the first period and Brad Richardson scored on a power play in the third, helping the Kings beat the Blues 2-1. A crowd of 11,603 showed up - good numbers for a pre-season game - and there didn't seem to be any glitches, other than maybe the extra-loud horn that scared some of the newer fans.

"It was unbelievable," Kings forward Wayne Simmonds said. "It was a good turnout, more than what I expected, and I enjoyed playing here."

It was the first hockey game at the year-old, US$276 million Sprint Center and what city officials hope is the first step toward landing an NHL tea, so there was a lot riding on this night.

"One of the reasons we built this building was to look at opportunities for the community and certainly the NHL is at the top of the list," said Kevin Gray, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission and Foundation. "This is a big test for us to see how people embrace it."

It was a good first step. The problem is taking the next one.

The Sprint Center was built with hopes of luring an NBA or NHL franchise. It's spectacular on the outside, over 2,000 shimmering glass panes making it look like an upturned crystal bowl, and has all the amenities inside that professional team could want.

All that's missing is a team.

While the 140 events in a year - everything from Elton John to the Disney on Ice - and 1.3 million visitors count as a success, the arena needs an anchor franchise for long-term financial stability.

So far, there's nothing on the horizon.

The Sprint Center will host a pre-season game between Atlanta and Portland next month, and that could be the last time NBA visits Kansas City for awhile.

The Sonics seemed to be Kansas City's best chance of getting a team to relocate, but they went to Oklahoma City instead. Expansion doesn't seem likely, either; the NBA seems to be more interested in going overseas than back to Kansas City, home of the Kings from 1972-85.

Hockey might be a better fit, though Kansas City hosted an NHL team before without much success.

The Scouts were an expansion team in 1974 and played two seasons in Kansas City before relocating to Denver, eventually becoming the New Jersey Devils. The Scouts were never strong financially and won 27 combined games while failing to draw a lot of interest.

The city also doesn't seem to have much of an infrastructure to build up hockey from the grass roots level, just a handful of ice rinks dotting the area.

"I'd rate it (Kansas City) as a sleeping giant," said Paul McGannon, president of NHL 21, a civic group trying to bring a franchise to the city. "The sport never really had a chance on the major league level. You can't really judge a market until you have a major league facility, which we do, and eventually a team."

Kansas City does seem to have an interest in the sport, at least judging by Monday night's crowd.

A buzz of anticipation filled the arena with each odd-man rush and cheers rang out with each check into the boards. The Blues fans - more than half the crowd - rose from their seats with a roar when Paul Kariya punched in a rebound late in the third period to cut the Kings' lead to 2-1.

The fans even got to see a fight, cheering wildly as Kings forward Kevin Westgarth and Blues forward D.J. King traded a flurry of blows late in the third period.

"There was a great crowd here tonight. It was a fun hockey game to play in," Kings defenseman Tom Preissing said. "For sustainability of hockey, it is really hard to say without having multiple games. By all signs that we saw tonight, I think it is very sustainable."


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