A few years ago, there was a very real possibility that the Pittsburgh Penguins would relocate to Kansas City, MO and set up shop in the Sprint Center.
We all know how that story ended – after a lot of tough negotiations and ups and downs, Mario Lemieux and his team were able to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, striking a financing deal with the city that resulted in the beautiful CONSOL Energy Center and a commitment to keeping the franchise in the Steel City for decades to come.
But on Tuesday, the dream that many held of bringing the Penguins to the South became a reality – albeit for just one night – when Pittsburgh defeated the Los Angeles Kings, 3-2, in a shootout at the Sprint Center in front of a packed house.
And the 17.779 fans in attendance – representing a wide range of hockey teams in terms of their apparel – did not disappoint.
“Sometimes at different venues, you don’t have an atmosphere. But with the fans tonight, it was a pretty full place,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “There were a lot of Pittsburgh jerseys and Kings jerseys, but you also saw other teams in the league. So it was a great atmosphere.
“In the third and in the shootout, the fans were noticeable. So it felt more like a regular-season game. To have a full building in Kansas City, I think it’s good for hockey and good for a pre-season game.”
The players weren’t sure what to expect heading into Tuesday’s tilt at a non-hockey arena. But they came away with an appreciation for the city and its hockey fans.
“It was a lot of fun. It’s somewhere we hadn’t been yet,” defenseman Deryk Engelland
said, who scored a regulation goal in the Penguins’ win. “It’s an awesome rink. The crowd was great.”
As goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
pointed out, there certainly were lots of Penguins jerseys in the sea of attendees – with many of their wearers having relocated permanently to the city from Pennsylvania for work or education reasons.
They all enjoyed the change of pace having NHL teams in town, especially their beloved Penguins.
“It’s fun. It’s different,” said University of Kansas student Adam Burns. “This is typically a football town. The Sprint Center usually doesn’t get hockey. So it’s good to have a little bit of a mix. It’s great. I love it.”
And those working to give the sport of hockey a more prominent place in Southern culture believe having games like these are the next step to generating interest.
“There’s a lot of hockey going on here in town, a lot of youth leagues, a lot of interest,” said Mark Eichemlaub, who relocated to Kansas City from Mt. Lebanon back in 1978.
“They had a team back when I worked for the Penguins and worked in Pittsburgh, they had the (Kansas City) Scouts, but it only lasted three years and there was no fan support. Now, they have a foundation built with the kids and that carries up all the way through. It’s a lot better now and there’s a lot of hockey knowledge out here now.”