Ice hockey in Las Vegas – does it work? Can the team get fans to show up? Do the locals really care?
Is the atmosphere anything close to a Montreal or Boston-like ‘hockeytown’? Is it worth your money to get tickets to Vegas and go catch a hockey game on the side?
When the National Hockey League first announced in June 2016 that its latest expansion team would be be based in the desert gambling hub, fans and journalists alike rolled their eyes and started polishing their best jokes and puns.
But as the 2017-18 hockey season got underway, the dream of the Las Vegas Golden Knights became a reality, and it dawned on people that the new franchise couldn’t be in a better city in terms of sports, betting and entertainment.
For now it’s a match made in heaven or, in this instance, Nevada.
One might think a fresh expansion team such as the Golden Knights would struggle, especially in a location where the words ‘ice’ and ‘hockey’ are not deeply ingrained into the sporting culture.
But the team is fourth in the Western Conference with a record of 17 wins, 9 losses and one overtime victory after 27 games and seventh in the whole league of 31 teams.
Their roster is made of players who got put on the expansion draft list by their previous teams.
Simply put: the Knights consists of players who are skating with a serious chip on their shoulder to prove all doubters and former teams wrong.
I knew the Knights were on roll and simply had to find out what is all the buzz about. So, I flew to the desert and went to a game with high hopes of witnessing something extraordinary.
Viva Las Vegas
Las Vegas has never had a team in the big four major leagues in the United States. No NFL, no NBA, no MLB and certainly no NHL – until now.
The Golden Knights are hometown heroes and their logo can be seen everywhere in the city.
Every gift shop, corner stand or any other place of business that sells something in Vegas has Golden Knights merchandise.
The brand clearly has a place in the city’s tourism industry, and with the team winning as well as they are right now, more money will be invested in growing the franchise because they are the only major league sports product in town.
In true ‘Sin City’ fashion, I made things interesting and put down a $100 moneyline bet for the home team.
Myself and many others are one of the reasons why betting parlours are getting massive amounts of fresh cash flow due to the new betting attraction that is the Golden Knights.
As I made my way from the MGM Grand to the T-Mobile Arena, thousands of people sporting Knights shirts, hats, flags and jerseys walked by my side. It felt like these fans were out to prove something by showing passionate support for their team.
The locals have never had a big four team but now they do and they are, for the lack of a better word, possessed by it. ‘Hockeytown’ or not, the team has created a visible and supportive fan base.
The arena first opened its doors on April 6th in 2016 and definitely has the feel of a new and modern luxurious venue. After being in places like Nassau Coliseum or the rusty squared cage that is Loftus Road, the T-Mobile Arena looked like a five-star hotel, which enhanced the experience.
The fans were as loud as you can imagine. I could tell by the reactions during the game that everyone knew the rules and understood what was happening on the ice.
With all the lights, insanely loud bass heavy music and intermission entertainment by the famous Blue Man Group, it became clear that this was not just a regular season game but a proper sports entertainment product. The arena was packed and everyone came out to party alongside the Golden Knights.
The hockey itself was fast paced and high scoring. The visiting San Jose Sharks got left behind by a score of 4-1 at the start of the second period. The 18,000 people in attendance we’re getting louder and my bet looked like a shoe-in.
‘The question is, what happens when the honeymoon is over and the Golden Knights become just another Vegas attraction and just another team in the NHL?’
But expected the unexpected in Vegas – drama then ensued as the Sharks managed to score three unanswered goals and tie the game at 4-4 before the end of the second period. We saw no scoring in the third and thus went to overtime.
The pleasant thing about American sports is that there is always a winner. In the NHL, overtime hockey is played three a side. It resembles nothing short of a videogame and when witnessed live provides tons of close calls and exciting moments.
Lady luck graced me with her smile and the Golden Knights sealed the deal with Jonathan Marchessault’s overtime game-winning goal. Vegas won, the fans won and I won. My desert hockey experiment had paid off.
The big bad NFL
Obviously, it is still their inaugural season and the team has not yet faced any kind of adversity on the ice, nor financially since they are making revenue through tourism and the bucks of local sports fans who now have a team to support.
‘The Golden Knights are the talk of the town and you really have to see it to believe it’
The question is, what happens when the honeymoon is over and the Golden Knights become just another Vegas attraction and just another team in the NHL?
Right now, the show is a must-see since the team is playing exciting fan-friendly hockey. But once the dust settles and the team start going through the usual rough stretches of a regular season, will the fans stay or shout nay in unison?
These questions will be answered in due time but the real test begins in 2020 when the NFL comes to town and the current Oakland Raiders become the Las Vegas Raiders.
This aggressive move by the NFL will take the spotlight away from the NHL, perhaps permanently since American football is the biggest sport in every city and Las Vegas won’t be any different.
But until then, if you find yourself in Vegas and need your live sporting event fix, the Golden Knights are the talk of the town and you really have to see it to believe it.