Arrival of Vegas Golden Knights signals positive trend for Nevada hockey growth
Those who think that Las Vegas and professional hockey make an odd pairing must not have been paying attention for the last 25 years.
The sport and Sin City have long been dancing partners, and it seemed only a matter of time before something big would happen there.
That time has come with the arrival of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights for the 2017-18 season, and while hockey has long been popular in Southern Nevada, that popularity appears poised to explode. The presence in Vegas of the first franchise in any of the four major North American professional sports is sure to drive public interest in the game, but beyond that, it’s expected to have a trickle-down effect that should grow the sport at the youth, high school, junior, college and even adult levels.
John Brooks runs the Nevada Storm youth program and Western States Hockey League’s (WSHL) Las Vegas Storm team along with his brother, Kirk. The two were instrumental in driving the season-ticket interest that was a significant factor in securing the NHL franchise, and John Brooks can see plenty of benefits for the kids he and his staff work with every day.
“Hockey has grown exceptionally in the Southwest in the last 10-15 years, with the influence of the Kings, Ducks and Coyotes,” he said. “Youth hockey, and hockey in general, has exploded in those areas. I think Vegas is going to be a unique market because kids who look up to professional athletes will only have one sport to look at – it’s not going to be football, baseball or basketball. It’s going to be an NHL player that they want to emulate.”
Las Vegas’ flirtation with hockey dates back to 1991 and the NHL’s then-revolutionary outdoor exhibition game between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers in the shadows of Caesar’s Palace. In recent years, the league’s postseason awards show has been hosted there, and the Kings and Avalanche have played a preseason game there nearly every year since the late 1990s. And the city has been home to minor-league teams for the better part of the last two and a half decades – first the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League from 1993-99 and then the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL from 2003-14.
Team owner Bill Foley began reaching out to the Vegas community in 2014 to gauge interest in bringing a team there, and the response was overwhelming. Fast forward to June 22, 2016, and those dreams became a reality when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the city would be awarded an expansion franchise.
“We are amazed at the level of excitement over the Golden Knights in Vegas,” said George McPhee, the team’s general manager. “Residents have demonstrated tremendous civic pride in having their very own NHL team. We’ve had many events where we have gone beyond capacity in the number of people who have turned out to support the team, and our ticket and merchandise sales are very, very, strong.”
The team’s name and logo were revealed in late November (although not without controversy, as the franchise is appealing the denial of its trademark application due to a conflict with a Division II college in New York), and next on the agenda is assembling the roster and front office. While the expansion draft is still six months away, Foley and McPhee have already been hard at work putting together a staff of not only hockey people, but professionals in sales, marketing, operations and all the other key roles behind the scenes that make a modern professional sports franchise successful.
“The selection of our head coach is very important and is the last remaining key decision to make in relation to personnel,” McPhee said. “We’ll hire someone who can lead a team and also teach individuals. Most of the other hirings in our organization will be done locally. There is lots of talent in Vegas, and we look to benefit from a Vegas pool of applicants. We are building the team and franchise by hiring talented, experienced, low-ego people who want to be part of something special.”
While the franchise has plenty of work to do before its first game, the impact of its impending arrival already has had a positive effect on the hockey community.
The Storm is the only remaining established youth hockey program in Las Vegas, with 10 teams between its youth program, Tier I and the WSHL club. There are also approximately 200 kids playing in-house hockey with the Storm, who have grown quickly since icing just five teams a few years ago.
While nothing is official yet, informal discussions have started for the Storm to change their name and become the Jr. Golden Knights. The program and the NHL franchise have enjoyed a positive relationship, and Brooks expects that to continue and to benefit both parties.
“They have said they want to support youth hockey, and we’ve been included and communicated with all along the way,” Brooks said. “They’re building a new facility with two sheets of ice pretty close to ours, and I think it’s going to be great. The vision as I understand it is to build a really strong program using both facilities, as well as the Sobe Ice Arena. We don’t have any contractual agreements with them, though everything has suggested that it’s going to be a very cooperative relationship.
“From the beginning, they’ve embraced us and our program. It’s going to be a great opportunity for Vegas, and I think youth hockey is going to explode.”
Greg Yochum is the president of the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association (NAHA), which last season had approximately 900 adult players registered and 500 youth players. While those numbers have been relatively flat over the last 5-10 years, he’s expecting a boost in participation, especially with two new sheets of ice being added that will increase the city’s available ice time by 67 percent.
“There’s a ton of excitement here in the hockey community and the community as a whole,” Yochum said. “Having had two kids play youth hockey for the past 10 years and having traveled to a lot of games and tournaments with them, I’ve seen the growth in Arizona and Southern California. I think we can expect the same kind of thing in Las Vegas, where five years from now you see better youth hockey and 10 years from now, we’re competing for Pacific District championships and things like that.
“We have a roadmap to follow, whereas some of the other Southwest cities were the pioneers in this area of the country.”
Yochum said NAHA’s immediate goal is to get its number of youth players over the 1,000 mark, and he thinks that’s a conservative estimate based on the level of excitement surrounding the NHL’s arrival. He envisions hockey growing in popularity quickly and Vegas becoming a destination for more than just fans of the professional game.
“Ten years from, we could surprise some people and put in a bid for the World Juniors or other similar events, because we have the hospitality backbone and the event background,” Yochum said. “One of our goals is to have a youth hockey Tier I or Tier II national tournament here. I could see us making our mark on the national stage quickly for hockey, because people want to come here.”
At the college level, UNLV has established itself as one of the strongest programs in the western United States and also stands to benefit from the arrival of the Golden Knights. Currently ranked first in the ACHA Division II West Region rankings for the first time in the program’s history, the Rebels were also recently approved to move up to Division I starting next season.
“In Vegas, the buzz around the city is great,” said Anthony Vignieri-Greener, UNLV’s second-year head coach. “The hockey community here is small, but tight-knit. UNLV already has an established brand in the city, and with the NHL team here, it’s going to be a beneficial relationship for both us and them.”
Vignieri-Greener spent most of his childhood in Vegas, playing for youth programs like the Icemen, Mustangs and Rebels. He moved away to play junior hockey, then returned and became an All-American at UNLV after the program started in 2005.
Next season, UNLV will move into the Golden Knights’ brand new practice facility for all their practices and most of their games, with the exception of three highly anticipated games at the brand-new T-Mobile Arena.
“The program has taken off, and with the NHL team here, it will be a selling point for us to kids that we’re recruiting all across the country,” Vignieri-Greener said.
“I’ve seen the good and the bad, but really have a lot of faith that this will work here. Everybody has really embraced it.”
McPhee said he can see similarities between what he’s hoping to build in Vegas and the efforts he and his staff made to grow the game during his time as the Washington Capitals’ general manager from 1997-2014. While the D.C. area is considered more of a traditional hockey market than Las Vegas, the Caps’ run to their first Stanley Cup Finals in McPhee’s debut season, and a subsequent run of playoff appearances, helped generate great interest in hockey there.
He can also draw comparisons to the Coyotes just a few hundred miles away in Phoenix. While the franchise has had its ups and downs in its 20-year history, there’s no debating the impact that it has had on the growth of interest and participation in hockey there.
“The presence of the NHL in Vegas and Nevada will increase the visibility of the NHL around the world, as Las Vegas is a worldwide brand, but just as important will increase the visibility of the NHL and hockey in Vegas and Nevada, and help us grow the game,” McPhee said.
“We will develop strong hockey programs at the grassroots level for boys, girls and adults. We expect the number of house league, travel team, high school and adult leagues to mushroom as they did in Washington during our time there. We expect to have kids who are playing other sports to give hockey a try, learn how much fun it can be, and enjoy a life-long journey with the game. Finally, we expect that we will one day soon produce our own Auston Matthews in Nevada.”
Brooks said his program has been booming in recent years, with numbers growing quickly in the Storm’s learn to skate and learn to play hockey offerings. He believes he has only seen the tip of the iceberg, though.
“I think our growth has been the result of a combination of things we’re doing well and the impending arrival of the NHL team, but I think the real growth is going to happen when they’re finally on the ice,” Brooks said. “Things are going well here, and we’re really excited about the NHL’s arrival.”
Photos/Eric J. Fowler
— Greg Ball