Vegas Should Get a Winter Classic

Outdoor games used to be a luxury reserved for the lucky few NHL teams. The yearly Winter Classic used to only give two teams every season the opportunity to play some outdoor hockey. With the introduction of the Stadium Series, that number increased exponentially to the point that now a vast majority of the league’s teams have played at least one outdoor game. Some lucky teams have played multiple.

Gary Bettman, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Brad Alberts, Herb Fritch
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, chats with Dallas Stars Jamie Benn, center, and Tyler Seguin during a news conference outside the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

In the 2020 Winter Classic, both the visiting Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars made their first outdoor game appearances. That leaves six current NHL franchises that have never taken their game outdoors (Seattle’s expansion team obviously not included). Out of the six still waiting for their Stadium Series or Winter Classic to come is the NHL’s newest kid on the block: the Vegas Golden Knights.

NHL’s Outdoor History in Vegas

The Golden Knights would be an interesting choice for an outdoor game, especially if they host. The NHL’s first outdoor game was held in Las Vegas, many years ago. Back in 1991, the Caesars Palace parking lot played host to a preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. This was back during the Wayne Gretzky era in Los Angeles and over 13,000 fans packed into the makeshift arena.

Kings Rangers Las Vegas game
The Kings and Rangers played in an outdoor game in 1991. (THW Archives)

Any concerns about outdoor hockey in Vegas were proven wrong that night. Despite the 85 degree temperature, the ice held up fine. Then again, the ice was specifically made to last in the warm weather. Instead of melting ice, a grasshopper infestation proved to be the bigger problem. With a different venue and new ice-making technology, any problems experienced in 1991 shouldn’t pose a threat in today’s day and age.

Vegas may be known as the entertainment capital of the world, but outdoor sporting venues don’t dot the city’s skyscape. Then again there was never a reason for them to. Most of the sports and acts that called Vegas home needed indoor venues. T-Mobile Arena finally filled the need for a major professional sports venue in the city in 2016.

Where Would the Game Be Played?

The city’s premier venue for outdoor sports used to be Sam Boyd Stadium, home to the UNLV football team. That venue is in the process of being replaced by Allegiant Stadium. Allegiant Stadium comes at a cost of $1.9 billion and will be the home venue of the relocated Oakland Raiders football team of the NFL when they move to Las Vegas next season. A clip of stadium construction recently went viral and caught the attention of the internet:

The Raiders and UNLV are already guaranteed tenants but the possibilities for additional events are endless. Owner of the Golden Knights, Bill Foley, is already trying to bring an MLS team to the stadium. (from “Golden Knights owner Bill Foley eyes MLS team for Raiders stadium”, Las Vegas Review Journal, 6/5/2019) A marquee event with his hockey team should be in the cards as well.

Vegas-Style Hockey, But Bigger

The 2020 Winter Classic was unique in the way it was a “uniquely Dallas” event. (from “With A Uniquely Dallas Atmosphere The Winter Classic At The Cotton Bowl Had It All”, The Dallas News, 1/1/2020) Outside of the stadium, which is located at the Texas State Fair, rides, games and carnival food were all available. The Winter Classic wasn’t only a game but an all-day party. If that’s what can happen in Dallas, just imagine what Vegas can do.

Las Vegas - The Statue of Liberty is cloaked in a Vegas Golden Knights jersey
Las Vegas (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Any questions on if an NHL team could survive in Vegas have been silenced by three seasons of success and sellout crowds at T-Mobile Arena. If a Stars and Predators matchup can draw 85,000-plus, then the Golden Knights should have no problem filling Allegiant’s 65,000 seats to capacity.

george mcphee
Las Vegas has proven to be a great hockey city. (Wikipedia)

Very few places celebrate New Year’s like Las Vegas. While the league always markets the event as a New Year’s Day tradition, having it in Vegas can make it a part of a much larger New Year’s celebration. Expect fireworks, and I mean a lot of fireworks.

Possible Opponents

In their short history, the Golden Knights have already made their share of rivals. All three of their top rivals reside in the Pacific Division. First, there are the Arizona Coyotes, another desert hockey team who the Golden Knights beat for their first-ever home win. Then there was the Los Angeles Kings, who the Golden Knights swept in the playoffs in their inaugural season. And, of course, there are the San Jose Sharks. The two teams have met in consecutive postseasons, including San Jose’s infamous comeback in Game 7 of last year’s opening round.

Golden Knights right wing Reilly Smith
The Golden Knights and Sharks have built an intense rivalry. (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Out of the three, the Coyotes are the only team to never participate in an outdoor game. The most likely of the three seems to be the Kings, considering their draw at the box office. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Kings fans flocking to Vegas the same way over 20,000 Predators fans did at this year’s Winter Classic.

Why It Might Not Happen

So far I see two relatively small, potential problems for a Vegas Winter Classic. First off is with potential venues. When UNLV agreed to move its football team to Allegiant Stadium they signed a deal preventing future use of Sam Boyd Stadium (“Sam Boyd Stadium’s future in question as UNLV leaves”, Las Vegas Review Journal, 11/22/2019). While Allegiant Stadium should be the venue the NHL chooses, what if it weren’t available? The Winter Classic usually falls around NFL playoff time, so what if the stadium is needed for their main tenant, the Raiders? If Sam Boyd Stadium is unavailable, or even potentially demolished, the NHL finds itself with no alternate venue.

Next is the probability that the NHL would select Vegas to hosts its premier regular-season event. The 2020 Winter Classic was proof the event could work in a non-traditional hockey market with non-traditional teams. However, the league’s decision for the Minnesota Wild to host the 2021 Winter Classic is a stunning reversal and a return of the game to a more traditional hockey locale. The NHL chooses a location on a year-by-year basis, so there’s no reason to think Minnesota’s hosting of the event in 2021 will affect the 2022 location. Vegas has been a winning bet for the NHL, so maybe by 2022 they’ll decide it’s a great place to play hockey on Jan. 1.