Golden Knights hustle to make Las Vegas fluent in hockey

Golden Knights hustle to make Las Vegas fluent in hockey
LAS VEGAS—In the western suburb of Summerlin, Nevada, a planned community painted in hues of beige and brown and with a dizzying amount of roundabouts, there is an anonymous business park the Vegas Golden Knights temporarily call home. In the fall, they will move operations into a nearly $30-million (U.S.) practice facility. For now, an office building 14 miles from the Las Vegas Strip is where the NHL hopes its next ice age dawns.

When Kim Frank arrived in town last September as the team’s vice president of marketing, after working for the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards since 2007, the Vegas Golden Knights had a name but no identity. There was no logo. No uniforms. No players on the roster. Nothing in place that could help Frank do her job: sell the brand of hockey to a community in a sports desert.

“It’s a true start-up,” Frank says in the lobby of the Black Knight Sports & Entertainment offices, on a July morning when the oppressive heat surpasses 40 C.

“It’s new. It’s not moving a franchise. It’s a brand new expansion team,” Frank continues, “which means from the ground up.”

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The Golden Knights will begin their inaugural season in October as the 31st team in the NHL but the first professional sports franchise in Las Vegas. Hockey is not an abstract concept to the more than two million residents; The Las Vegas area has plenty of émigrés from across North America who now pay taxes in Clark County, residents who still have teams back home to root for. Minor league hockey had a long run in town as well, although Las Vegas’s WCHL and ECHL teams have since folded.

However, in a city more known for its spectacles, the entertainment ranging from roulette tables to limitless rum-and-Cokes to residencies for Donnie and Marie, building fluency in hockey begins with uncovering the “other” Vegas — the one that lives in the shadow of the blinding lights of Las Vegas Boulevard.

“Sports teams give cities identities,” said Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, another Washington transplant who held the same position for the Capitals for 17 years. “It seems the residents of the city want to be known for more than the Strip.”

A billboard near Dean Martin Drive warns that The Raiders Are Coming, a tease in silver and black for the pending move of a pro football team, the Oakland Raiders, to Las Vegas. However, before the NFL stakes its claim here, for now, Las Vegas is a hockey town.

“We can own this one. We can do this,” says Asi Oba, a fireman whose unit is stationed near the T-Mobile Arena, where the Knights will play.

“It brings something that we’ve never had,” Oba says, then repeats his singular drawl: “I can own this.”

It’s a belief that was shared by thousands of residents in 2015 when owner Billy Foley, with no commitment from the NHL, needed to prove this market was viable for hockey.

“There was nothing (tangible here),” recalls Todd Pollock, the vice president of ticketing and suites, one of the first employees on the ground and tasked with running the season ticket drive. “We were selling the dream to people and painting a picture. ‘How cool would it be to have a team in town to call our own?’ ”

The league gave the Knights a target of 10,000 season-ticket deposits. Within a couple months, the team had exceeded that goal. By June 22, 2016, when the NHL rewarded Las Vegas with a franchise, 16,000 people had paid for the chance to secure future season tickets. Those deposits turned into more than 14,000 actual season-ticket holders.

One of the earliest pledges belonged to 23-year-old Las Vegas native Thomas Field. He wasn’t always a hockey fan. Field had to leave the Mojave Desert to fall in love with the game.

“The Blackhawks were running the town at the time,” Field recalls. “Just going to games, it was so unique. There’s no experience like it.”

When he settled back home in Las Vegas, Field made his first major purchase out of college: $2,500 for a pair of Knights’ season tickets in the middle of section 220.

The Knights business operations know the statistics — Las Vegas welcomes more than 42 million visitors each year — but they want to draw their fan base from the Vegas that exists in the suburban terracotta sprawl of strip malls and look-a-like apartment complexes.

Even before the roster came together, the team held free stick giveaways for local kids and hosted events called “Hockey Is For Everyone,” which underscored who they were targeting for their core demographic. The team embraced communities that stretch throughout Green Valley, Spring Valley and Henderson, and as new inhabitants, staffers learned an early lesson: don’t pronounce it ‘Nevaahda,’ like a tourist.

Still, there’s no escaping Sin City for the Knights.

Before training camp, the team is expected to hold a session for players on the matter of gambling. Also, a gentlemen’s club, not affiliated with the Knights, has announced it will host hockey viewing parties. Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker, the only Las Vegas native in the NHL, believes the team will have no choice but to take on some of the character of the city’s reputation.

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“Because the city is such an entertainment city, they have to compete with that, and that’s a hard task but I think they’re ready for it,” Zucker says. “They’ve done a good job marketing the team and making sure the product is out in the public.”

McPhee, a career hockey man, had much to do with laying the team’s foundation in Las Vegas. For the first six months on the job, McPhee assisted Foley in everything from hiring candidates on the business side to picking out jersey designs. (“It took me a little bit longer to digest it,” McPhee said of the knight’s helmet that outlines a ‘V’ for Vegas). Then, McPhee dived strictly into hockey operations and drew upon many of the same principles from his Capitals era.

Before being fired in 2014, McPhee oversaw the Caps during their ‘Rock The Red’ revitalization, an experience that was helpful in his second time around, now as an architect of a fledgling franchise.

“I was told by several GMs that this would be the most positive hockey experience you’ll have because everyone is happy to be there,” McPhee says. “It’s a fresh start for everyone, whether it’s their first time with a professional franchise or they got promoted away from another franchise or someone was fired and they’re getting a second chance with this franchise.

“And they were absolutely right,” McPhee continues. “This has been one of the most enjoyable years I’ve ever had in the hockey experience.”
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