On Frozen Pond
Under the new ownership of Lamar Hunt Jr., and with other changes in place, the Missouri Mavericks look to make the playoffs again.
The Missouri Mavericks training in Alaska
When you're a member of the Hunt family, it's in your DNA to have an affinity for a number of sports. And they're no stranger to minor league hockey.
A young Lamar Hunt Jr. would cheer on the old Dallas Black Hawks at Fair Park Coliseum with his father, Lamar Sr., and he was captivated by the intensity on the ice and the number of scoring opportunities the players were able to create.
And a recent trip to see the Missouri Mavericks at what is now called Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence convinced Hunt to look into possible ownership of the team." When I first walked into the arena, I was impressed," Hunt says. "The arena was nice, the setup was nice, everything they had done, they had done very, very well. And then when we looked at the operation, they were very conscientious about how they went about the business.
"And just going to the games, there was a great level of engagement with the fans and the community."
Hunt purchased 100 percent of the Mavericks in February, and it's only one piece of the transitional pie within the franchise. In addition to new ownership, the 2014-15 season saw the Mavericks move from the now-defunct Central Hockey League to the ECHL, an established AA league that continues to grow in stature.
The Missouri Mavericks
The Isles were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference last season, led by superstar center John Tavares, who was second in points in the NHL.
Second-year Mavericks head coach Richard Matvichuk and his staff were on hand for the Islanders' rookie camp in the summer to familiarize themselves with Islanders coach Jack Capuano's system. As an assistant in the CHL and ECHL, Matvichuk won two Kelly Cups with the Allen Americans. And as a player in the NHL, he won a Stanley Cup with the outrageously talented 1999 Dallas Stars, guys that Matvichuk still talks to on a weekly basis.
"We were so fortunate to have such a great group in Dallas when we played that we were all really good friends also," Matvichuk says, "so any time I can reach out to somebody and maybe give me a play or something I need help with, I could call Mike Modano (Dallas Stars forward and the all-time goal-scoring leader amongst American-born players in the NHL). If my goalie has an issue with something, I could call Ed Belfour.
"You get to learn certain things when you have a group of guys like we had. I got to learn from Craig Ludwig and Guy Carbonneau and Shawn Chambers and guys like that who really taught me the ropes on how to be a leader and how to voice your opinion when it was time to voice your opinion. I just translated that into being a coach. These kids are so visual now that when you have a chance to get one-on-one time with them, it's going to make them better hockey players."
"Kids" is the operative word. Another transition that Mavericks forward Andrew Courtney sees is that the league has steadily gotten younger since he started playing in Missouri. When the Mavs were in the CHL, it was an older team with a few players in their 30s who had families. Now the team is full of guys fresh out of college in their 20s.
"It's guys that are driven and want to make that next step to the next level, and the opportunity with the affiliation gives that chance for guys that want to try and get to the NHL and try and get to a higher league in Europe," says Courtney, a fan favorite in his fifth full season, who scored a career-high 36 goals last season. "It's more developmental, and it's making the older guys work that much harder to try and keep their jobs. It also keeps them young too with young guys around. It drives you to be better and to work as hard as they're working."
Team bonding was at a premium when the Mavericks spent 10 days in Alaska getting ready for the regular season in October. Courtney describes the 2015-16 Mavs as a tight group, and at press time, they've shown it on the ice.
If not for a fluky goal in the last minute of their rubber match with the Aces, he would've had three straight shutouts.
goalie josh robinson
And right winger Josh Holmstrom was dialed in offensively, scoring five points in the first five games (three goals, two assists).
"Josh [Holmstrom] is a smart player that can skate very well," Matvichuk says. "He goes to the areas that we call in hockey the 'dirty areas' [in front of the net] and those areas that he's been going into, the puck's been waiting for him, and he's been able to process some goals."
Winning home games is always imperative if you want to make the playoffs, and Missouri plays in front of an environment that Courtney calls the best in minor league hockey. The Mavs were sixth in attendance last year and have had a history of leading their league in sellouts.
"We are one of the larger markets in the ECHL," Hunt says. "We're at the top part of the league in that with cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati and even Atlanta, so that helps a little bit when you go competing maybe with the smaller markets as far as our ability to draw corporate interests, corporate sponsorships, our ability to form relationships and our ability to draw fans when we have more density in population. The teams here, the Chiefs and the Royals, obviously draw very, very well. Sporting Kansas City does exceptionally well. So we're able to ride that sports enthusiasm with a community of people wanting to be passionate about something."
Missouri made the playoffs in each of its first five years, but last season was a bumpy one. They only won 28 games and were out of the playoff picture. To keep the playoff drought at one season, Matvichuk feels they have a good combination of youth and veterans who can carry the load. Veterans like Courtney, who signed a new contract in June and has been a constant in the midst of all the change.
"I met my girlfriend here, and I love it here," says Courtney, an Ontario, Canada, native. "In the summers I try and stay as much as possible depending on my visa, so it was very important. I want to be here when we win a championship, and hopefully one day I can call Kansas City home. I can't ask for anything else. I wouldn't go anywhere else. It's the place that I want to be."