KC has a surprisingly solid hockey history. What could it look like in the future?
Mavericks, Coyotes, and Kraken? Oh my!
A movement towards a new arena for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes was struck down May 16 by the Tempe City Council, leading to local support for and speculation on the possibility of the team moving to Kansas City in the future.
If these fireworks were to occur, the ‘yotes would still be at least 15 years behind the longest standing professional hockey franchise in the region, the Lamar Hunt, Jr. owned Kansas City Mavericks.
However, as of right now, the Mavs are siding with a different NHL franchise—the league’s newest formed in 2021—the Seattle Kraken, who on that very same May 16 faced their first ever playoff elimination scenario and fell to Dallas, 2-1, in a compelling seven-game series to exit in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
To understand all of the hows and whys, it helps to understand the American minor league sports systems in the MLB and NHL and how they work. For the less attuned, read on for some clarity.
Having just completed their 14th season of play following a six-game, first-round loss to the Allen Americans in the ECHL playoffs, the Mavericks are coming off one of the most successful seasons in their history.
Finishing the regular season at 34-30-6-2 (and it’s perfectly fine if you don’t understand that W-L column), the Mavs increased their win total for the fourth straight season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2018-2019.
In a realm as volatile as AA professional hockey, where leagues can fold and merge on a year-to-year basis, and where often-shorter-term affiliations with NHL feeder-teams can be both stabilizing or create massive volatility, this visible longevity is a feat in its own right. It’s also the key to fostering a functionally sustainable local culture in the sport which is necessary for its continued growth at all levels.
This upward trend began at the start of the decade, when general manager and head coach Tad O’Had was brought over from Florida. O’Had, who enters his fourth year with the Mavs next season, was a key player in the organization’s decision to form an affiliation with the Kraken and their intermediary affiliate, the AHL’s Coachella Valley Firebirds.
“We were looking at a couple of different clubs. It was something that took about a year to go over, and ultimately, we looked at what makes the best sense? What organization do we have the best relationship with? And I firmly believe we made the right call,” O’Had says as players clear out their lockers at the Cable-Dahmer Arena in May.
For those who may not understand how the minor-league system works in hockey, it is perhaps most comparable to baseball, where a franchise will partner with two or more lower-level professional teams. With coaching geared towards continued development, these “farm systems” are by design tied to some level of expected instability. The better your players do, the more likely it is that they’ll be called up to the next level.
From where the Mavericks stand, this controlled chaos is a daily reality. Even though call-ups are to be expected, O’Had says this season saw some particularly prominent losses of the team’s best and brightest.
“Coachella Valley is actually in the playoffs right now, and two of our players who were very instrumental to our success are playing on their roster for them. Jeremy McKenna being one, and then our captain, Nick Pastujov,” O’Had explains.
Still in the thick of their own Calder Cup playoff picture, the Coachella Valley Firebirds could feature McKenna and Pastujov, both forwards with the latter at center, and other Mavericks players on their roster through at least June if they play their way to the AHL Conference Finals.
“From an organizational standpoint, this is huge. All three teams made the playoffs. That’s a rarity in professional hockey, and it speaks to the strength of the organizations,” O’Had says.
Meanwhile, as his players mulled about with duffels, pads, and water bottles, and while front office staffers mingled about the Cable-Dahmer concourse, O’Had was back on the job as if he had never left.
“We start recruiting tomorrow. We’ll work in conjunction with Seattle and CV for their draft picks, as well as any players they’ll sign in free agency. Then we’ll also go out and sign some ECHL free agents,” O’Had says.
That sort of tenacity is almost required at this level, where, again, the players who come and go are necessarily also your best. It’s about development—the fundamentals.
The pipeline goes all the way to the source, and O’Had is encouraged by the rising attendence numbers and his own observations of it in a year that saw an average of 3,500 people per game at home this regular season.
“This is a great sports city. It’s a market that is still growing from a hockey standpoint,” O’Had says. “This year, more than than any other year I can remember, I’ll tell you, the amount of youth and kids at our games was exciting. You can see the growth there.”
If the Coyotes do indeed move to Kansas City someday, or even if they don’t, a strong local culture will only widen the pie for everyone.
“KC has a history of professional hockey, and it’s growing. Part of it is to try to continue to grow at the grassroots level, working with the youth organizations and youth arenas. We’ve got to continue that work,” O’Had says.