WICHITA, Kan. – Welcome to ECHL All-Star Classic week! For the next three days, the eyes of the double-A hockey world will be centered on Wichita, Kansas. With that in mind, I thought I’d write an article to introduce you to our corner of the world.
Wichita is a town with more than 389-thousand people and over 640-thousand in the metro area (suburbs included). The city sits at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers, where it’s watched over by the Keeper of the Plains, a sculpture that was created by Blackbear Bosin in the 1950s.
Wichita turns 150 years old this year and for its entire existence has been a community that has been reliant on farming. During the 1880s, more than five million heads of cattle were driven from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail, which runs right through the heart of the city.
Wichita had a prominent place in the aircraft boom of the 1900s, being home to multiple aviation companies including Boeing, Beechcraft, Bombardier, Learjet, and Textron. In the run-up to World War II, Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base was one of the homes of the B-1 bomber and KC-135 tanker aircraft. That, combined with the prolific airplane industry, gave Wichita the moniker “Air Capital of the World”. To this day, Wichita remains a significant player in the aircraft industry.
In recent years, Wichita has further diversified its employment base through a growing banking industry, Wichita State University, and private employers like Cargill and Koch Industries, which are two of the largest privately-held companies in the United States.
The sports scene in Wichita has gone through a renaissance of sorts in the last fifteen years. The resurgence has led in-part by the Wichita Thunder and by the Wichita State Shockers, who has made the NCAA tournament eight times in the last fifteen seasons, including a trip to the Final Four in 2013.
“When you have successful sports teams, it draws attention to the city,” said Brian Hargrove, Executive Director for Sports Development at Visit Wichita. “Wichita State is a brand name and everyone knows where Wichita State is.”
The success of the Shockers in the Missouri Valley Conference and later the American Conference led Visit Wichita to work with the team and conference to put together a successful bid to bring the NCAA tournament back to Wichita for the first time in nearly 25 years in March 2018. The Men’s NCAA tournament comes back to Wichita next year, while the Women’s NCAA Regional Finals will be held in Wichita in 2022.
“Different events like (the NCAA tournament and ECHL All-Star Classic) that are nationally known, that make people take notice. Wichita is a sports city and it’s a big deal around here,” Hargrove said.
For its part, the Thunder also played into the sports market’s resurgence during the 2010s. After the sale of the team from Horn Chen to Steven Brothers Sports Management, the Thunder were led by Kevin McClelland to the best three-year run in team history. During that run, the team led the Central Hockey League in attendance and played for a championship twice.
“The Thunder have been huge in the development of the sports market in Wichita,” Hargrove said. “They have been the constant as far as professional sports teams.”
According to Hargrove, the ECHL All-Star Classic will draw roughly a million viewers on NHL Network, bring in visitor dollars to the city, and expose the Thunder fanbase to some of the sport’s rising stars. That trio checks the boxes for the Thunder and Visit Wichita, and potentially sets the stage for bigger and better things to come.
“We would love to get an NHL exhibition game here in Wichita. I think this could open the door for that,” Hargrove said. “People will see Wichita, Kansas on the ice and INTRUST Bank Arena, hopefully, they see a great atmosphere and a full house and they see what kind of hockey town Wichita is.”
All of these things, combined with an undying sense of pride in our town, make Wichita a great place to live.
So for the next few days, welcome to my town!