Golden Knights: Second Favourite Team for Canadians?

There is plenty of buzz about the Vegas Golden Knights — especially north of the 49th parallel.

(THW file photo) Canadian hockey fans are focused on the world juniors right now, but many are anxiously anticipating the Vegas Golden Knights' inaugural season, starting next October.
(THW file photo)
Canadian hockey fans are focused on the world juniors right now, but many are anxiously anticipating the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season, starting next October.

Canadians love their hockey, and many also love Las Vegas. So with the Golden Knights coming to Sin City next season, some of their biggest fans could be coming from above the border.

Certainly, fans of the seven Canadian teams — and specifically the three Pacific Division teams in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary — will be planning their future Vegas vacations around the Golden Knights’ schedule, which will be released in July. People are already booking holidays or at least blocking off dates for next fall, from October to December, in hopes that schedule will align.

Some of the hardcore hockey fans from Canada will even experience Vegas for the first time, just to see the Golden Knights. That could boost the tourism numbers that indicate 1.5 million Canadians visit Vegas every year — many of them frequent flyers, making multiple trips within 12 months.

That impact on the attendance at Golden Knights games can’t be understated. They will draw Canadians, including the casual hockey fans who happen to be in Vegas when the Golden Knights are playing at home.

Hockey will still be top of mind for the vast majority of those tourists with Canadian passports, and they will be eager to take in a Vegas game regardless of the opponent.

As soon as Vegas was awarded an NHL franchise in June, several Canadians jumped on that bandwagon — more than a few of them expressing interest in becoming season-ticket holders. Then, when the Golden Knights’ brand was unveiled with a sharp-looking logo in November, more Canadians took the plunge in purchasing memorabilia for Christmas.

It’s an exciting time for the Golden Knights, and it’s safe to say many Canadians now have a new second-favourite team.

Of course, first and foremost, Vegas will need to develop and maintain a local fan base. This is the first major professional sports franchise for the city, though it has a minor-league hockey history and thus a bit of a following thanks to the defunct Las Vegas Wranglers, formerly of the ECHL (2003-2014).

It does sound promising so far, in terms of the community and the entire state of Nevada embracing the Golden Knights through season-ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.

As for the travelling fans, Vegas is absolutely going to reap those benefits. Regardless of either teams’ record in the standings, fans of visiting teams will simply want to visit Vegas.

The Golden Knights should also be successful in forging regional rivalries, be it with the Arizona Coyotes or any of the three California teams from Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. Perhaps all of the above.

Those are relatively short commutes, mostly doable as day trips by vehicle or via short fairly inexpensive flights. The aforementioned Canadian cities within the Pacific Division also offer direct flights to Vegas, often at discounted rates.

Look no further than Arizona for proof that Canadian fans do, in fact, travel for hockey.

When the Coyotes host the Oilers or the Flames, half the crowd is from Alberta. Many of whom are actually wintering there — known as snowbirds, those who take up residency in warmer climates. They buy second homes or timeshares in that Phoenix area, with plans of golfing during the day and attending hockey games at night.

Expect the Golden Knights to provide a similar boon for real estate in Las Vegas, luring Canadians to the entertainment capital of the world to satisfy their sporting desires.

The key is making sure the other half of the crowd is largely local — otherwise the building is still half empty, but that shouldn’t be as much of a struggle for Vegas as it has been, at times, for Arizona. Not with T-Mobile Arena also being located on the Strip, with thousands of tourists from every continent to complement that local base.

It’s presumed that the hotels and resort casinos on the Strip will help promote the Golden Knights as well, perhaps by comping tickets to tourists who have never heard of hockey before.

Providing they like what they see — providing they are entertained, regardless of their hockey knowledge and understanding of the game — those tourists may pay to watch another game before leaving Vegas. They might also be inclined to tell their friends and family back home — wherever that might be — about the Golden Knights and hockey in general.

Talk about a win-win, even if the Golden Knights are a losing team in their inaugural season.

Las Vegas NHL
(THW file photo)
T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is a nice new facility right on the Strip, but not the biggest building in the league.

From an attendance standpoint, the NHL averaged 17,481 fans per game last season. The capacity of T-Mobile Arena for hockey is 17,500, according to Wikipedia.

So if a sellout is basically the league average, the Golden Knights will be hoping to fill their building on most nights — especially early on, to capitalize on the initial popularity and the newness of it all. Then it’s a matter of sustaining that momentum by icing an entertaining product that keeps those people coming back for more.

Rest assured, the Canadians will keep coming — win or lose, rain or shine. But the masses and the non-hockey fans will need a reason to return — especially on a regular basis.

We talked about the importance of that in last week’s Facing Off podcast, with guest Félix Sicard stressing the need to make this a fun team to watch.

(Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports) Bill Foley, the Golden Knights' owner, wants to ice an exciting team above all else, which should be music to the ears of hockey fans everywhere.
(Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports)
Bill Foley, the Golden Knights’ owner, wants to ice an exciting team above all else, which should be music to the ears of hockey fans everywhere.

Winning is obviously more fun than losing, but Félix’s point was that the Golden Knights shouldn’t be playing a defensive, trapping, boring style even if it increases their chances of winning.

Granted, Vegas has yet to hire a coach or add a single player to its pending roster and thus doesn’t have a system in place, but that shouldn’t be a concern since owner Bill Foley has shared his vision for an attacking, up-tempo team that can score and entertain.

That will be the goal in approaching the expansion draft, the entry draft and free agency, and also as a means of filling the seats.

For more discussion on the Golden Knights, check out Episode 6 of the Facing Off podcast with the Vegas talk starting just before the 53-minute mark and spanning almost a half hour.

I also recently had the privilege of representing The Hockey Writers on Nevada Public Radio, joining host Joe Schoenmann and Golden Knights chief marketing officer Nehme Abouzeid to discuss many of the topics from this article. That segment is available here, with Abouzeid offering valuable insight on a number of fronts. It is worth a listen for those interested in the Golden Knights.