Las Vegas has been professional sports’ “dirty little secret” as most leagues love the area as a franchise destination because of the entertainment. But, they hate also hate being partnered with a city best known for its legalized gambling.
This didn’t deter the NHL from setting up shop in town. The Vegas Golden Knights are set to debut in the 2017-18 season, and the League is ready to capitalize on an untapped sports market. The local fan base is eager to finally cheer for a major professional sports franchise that they can call their own. Suddenly, Las Vegas becomes the NHL’s favorite away date on next year’s calendar.
Hockey isn’t unknown in the desert, as the city has supported several successful minor league hockey franchises over the years. Here is an abbreviated history of how the sport became so popular in Las Vegas.
A Little Las Vegas History
Las Vegas Gamblers (1968-71)
In 1968, a group of displaced Northeasterners, Midwesterners and Canadians, who longed to get back on the ice and recapture their love of the sport, decided to form a team and play in an adult amateur hockey league. Thus, the Las Vegas Gamblers were born and became very instrumental in introducing the sport of hockey to the Southwest. Their sudden popularity encouraged the Gamblers to join a semi-pro league (Pacific Southwest Hockey League) in only their third year of existence. Unfortunately, team management couldn’t keep the business afloat and was forced to fold the franchise following the 1971 season.
Las Vegas Outlaws (1971-73)
In the fall of 1971, the Las Vegas Outlaws began play in an independent hockey league. A little-known fact about the Outlaws is they hold the best single season winning percentage of any Las Vegas professional hockey franchise with a 29-8-4 record. Their success was short-lived as the Outlaws were out of business following the 1973 season.
Las Vegas Thunder (1993-99)
It would take twenty years before another professional hockey league would consider placing a franchise in Las Vegas. The International Hockey League (IHL) awarded a team to the city, thus the Las Vegas Thunder came on the scene. Team management quickly announced their home games would be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center. Local interest grew as attendance averaged over 8,000 per night. These numbers caught the eye of NHL executives, who immediately put Las Vegas on the short list for a possible future franchise location site. Team success suddenly turned into chaos when UNLV school officials refused to negotiate a new lease with the Thunder prior to the 1999 season. With no other arenas available in town, team owners decided to fold the franchise.
Las Vegas Wranglers (2003-15)
In 2003, the ECHL took over the struggling WCHL and immediately awarded an expansion franchise to the city of Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Wranglers became the city’s most successful professional sports franchise to date. They were the first team in ECHL history to record three-consecutive 100-point seasons. All of this success came under the tutelage of Glen Gulutzan, who is the current head coach of the Calgary Flames.
Once again, arena issues doomed another Vegas hockey franchise as the Orleans Arena informed the Wranglers that their lease wouldn’t be renewed after the 2014-15 season. Frantically, team officials tried to secure a new deal with several local hotels but those negotiations broke down. This forced the Wranglers owner to cease operations later that summer.
The Blueprint for Success Already in Place
In comparison to other non-traditional hockey markets, Las Vegas is ahead of the curve on becoming a successful franchise because they have a solid fan base already in place. Ask any top executive on how to grow a sport and they will say it’s all about the kids.
The rise of youth hockey leagues in Las Vegas is quite astounding, as the number of travel squads has quadrupled over the past decade. It will take a rising star like Auston Matthews to emerge from a budding crop of young players that will help develop a wider interest in hockey. Yes, several local stars have gone on to play at the collegiate level and Minnesota Wild Jason Zucker (second-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft) lived in the Las Vegas area until the age of 11. His family moved to California and Michigan to benefit from the quality of hockey played at the midget and high school level.
Las Vegas had been continually passed over by the four major sports leagues until the NHL made the commitment. Now, you can expect the other leagues to follow. The Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion annually hosts the NBA Summer League, and everyone expects a franchise in town by the end of the decade. The Oakland Raiders are trying to resuscitate a doomed stadium deal with Las Vegas government officials that would allow them to relocate by the 2019 season.
The NHL has a rare opportunity of becoming the marquee act in a major US city, instead of being the third or fourth sports option in town. The other sports leagues will watch intently and Las Vegas is ready to shine.
Thomas Conroy covers the Vegas Golden Knights for The Hockey Writers Network He has been writing about sports since 2007, first as a contributor for Bleacher Report and Football Nation. Recently, Conroy was a co-editor for the Bolts Beat website on Fansided. To read more his work, please him on Twitter @tsconroy