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Why the Golden Knights are the hottest attraction in Las Vegas

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.

Doubters

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.

Game time

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.

Chapecoense and other sporting aviation disasters

In the early hours of Nov 29th, Lamia flight 2933 carrying 77 people, including the Chapecoense football team, crashed a few miles south of Medellin, northern Columbia.

The team were due to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, against Medellin team Atletico Nacional. Just six people survived and subsequently, the football world was plunged into mourning.

The saddest part about the crash, aside from all lives lost, is that such an incident is not unique in sporting, or even in footballing history. In this piece, we examine other sporting aviation disasters.

1) Munich air disaster

Perhaps the most well-known air crash involving a sports team occurred on February 6th 1958.

British European Airways flight 609, taking Matt Busby’s Manchester United team back to England after a triumph away at Red Star Belgrade, overshot the slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem airport, West Germany, where it had stopped for refuelling.

It was the third takeoff attempt after both pilots expressed dissatisfaction at the aircraft’s left engine. Of 43 passengers on board, 21 were killed, including seven Manchester United players. Manager Busby was severely injured and twice given last rites, but recovered and eventually rebuilt the team.

With Busby at the helm, United won the FA Cup four years later, the league title in 1965 and 1967 and then – a decade after the Munich crash – their first European Cup.

2) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash

On September 7th 2011, Yak-service flight 9633 crashed near the city of Yaroslavl in Russia on its way to Minsk, carrying 45 passengers; of which, 43 died.

On board were the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and every player but one on their roster lost his life. Forward Maxim Zyuzyakin, who was not on the flight, later became captain and embodied the team’s rejuvenation.

The crash happened shortly after departure and was blamed on human error, when the captain braked during takeoff, causing a stall.

3) Cubana flight 455

Cubana de Aviacion flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica, carrying 68 passengers and the Cuban national fencing team, was bombed midflight on June 11th 1976. Two C4 explosives were used by terrorists in an incident found to be orchestrated by Orlando Bosch Avila.

CORU, his anti-Castro terror group had been waging a violent campaign against Caribbean neighbours that had developed strong links with the Cuban regime. Everybody on board died in the disaster.

A declassified FBI document dated October 21, 1976, states that CORU “was responsible for the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 on October 6, 1976… because CORU was at war with the Fidel Castro regime.”

4) 1972 Andes flight disaster

A chartered flight carrying 45 passengers and the Uruguayan Old Christian rugby union team crashed into the Andes mountains on October 13th 1972.

The incident was a controlled flight into terrain, in which both wings clipped mountain peaks and holes were ripped in the fuselage.

Upon impact, five passengers died, with some survivors perishing in the ensuing days due to avalanches and others resorting to cannibalism.

Sixteen people survived the ordeal, including six of rugby team. The disaster was the basis for the 1993 film Alive and in the Hispanic world is referred to as the ‘Miracle of the Andes’.

5) LOT flight 7

On 14th March 1980, 87 passengers on board LOT flight 007, which included the US amateur boxing team, crashed in the Polish capital on its way from JFK to Warsaw Frederic Chopin airport.

The crash was caused by a faulty engine and subsequent loss of flight controls, and killed everybody on board.

Post-crash investigations revealed that many of the boxers on board, unlike other sleeping passengers, knew that they were about to crash, as examinations by doctors showed tears to muscles and tendons in their arms, suggesting that they were braced upon impact.

6) Air Indiana flight 216

On December 13th 1977, an Air Indiana DC-3 carrying the University of Evansville basketball team to Nashville to play the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders crashed shortly after takeoff at Evansville regional airport.

Fourteen members of the team perished in the incident alongside 12 other passengers.

The crash was blamed on pilot error, with an overloaded baggage compartment ‘changing the aircraft’s centre of gravity to the back end’ combining with a locked rudder and aileron, meaning that the aeroplane could not get the lift necessary to keep it airborne.

The only surviving member of the team, who did not travel that day, was killed in a car accident just weeks later. A monument was erected outside the university called the ‘weeping basketball’.

John Hindhaugh and the art of sports commentating

John Hindhaugh has been commentating on sports for over two decades, working his way up from hospital radio to owning and running sportscar racing’s leading station: Radio Le Mans. But talking to millions of listeners every week is no easy ride.

Hindhaugh always loved radio, he always wanted to be on it. Like many, he grew up listening to live events and shows, and wanted to be apart of it somehow, whether it was through music, or sports.

“The audience will never forgive you for any technical issues”

“I got into it through the backdoor,” he told Elephant Sport. “There wasn’t a shining moment that brought me to it, but there was always something special about listening to sport on the radio, desired by people who care about it.

“I would sit up late into the early hours of the morning as a kid and listen to boxing commentary. It was a big deal listening to something from the other side of the world, live. I love the feeling of a big event.

“And when I started I always felt speaking to people and broadcasting came naturally to me more than most, I didn’t find it that difficult. It’s a way of me expressing myself, I enjoy the buzz and thrill of analysing something on the fly that is by nature unpredictable.

Well rounded

“My ambition was originally to be Noel Edmonds, I thought he was an excellent presenter. He did a lot of good features and was a good music presenter. In the end though, that didn’t happen, I didn’t become a music jock. The big break for me was going to the States to broadcast on motorsport, and that’s what I’ve stuck with.”

So, in 1979, Hindhaugh made a career move and started broadcasting on hospital radio in Sunderland. He was tasked with all sorts of jobs, getting involved in many different sports.

“I wanted to cover different things. You rocked up at various places, and built up a network of contacts.

“That meant I was doing cycling in Newcastle, I did basketball for the Newcastle Sporting Club and Eagles, I did ice hockey for the Newcastle Cobras and rugby commentary for the Newcastle Falcons. I had no idea what to expect sometimes, from week to week.

“It’s really hard, when you work in so many sports. I’d never played basketball, ice hockey, I didn’t have a grounding. But I got involved doing onsite stuff and eventually turned it into my full career.”

Excite

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Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw during an ESPN broadcast

Hindhaugh agrees that whatever it is, people think it’s easy, because people think that anyone can just talk about sports. But it’s hard to flow, be objective and excite people – especially when they are listening over radio and can’t see the action.

You have to be able to paint pictures, which can be extremely difficult; many of us take that for granted.

“What people don’t realise is that commentating for a team, as an example, means that not only do you have to be prepared and know everyone and everything about that one club, but you need to know what it’s like when a club you only see once a year comes to town.

“You have to know all the names and study their form. It’s so hard to research in any depth when you are working at small local events.

“But it meant you have to be rounded, as a presenter and commentator. If you think back to Barry Davies and David Coleman – they did everything – not just football: athletics, hockey, all sorts.

“You had to be versatile. Back when I started, there weren’t many of us, being a commentator then was a skill, and a specialist commentator was in some ways were closing off opportunities.

“Ironically, I started doing motorsport commentary because there were so few people doing it.

“Nowadays it’s broadened out, as at each ground for a Premiership game or an F1 race there’s two or three sets of commentators. When I was doing football there weren’t as many positions, there was only one broadcast a week.

When it all goes wrong

Aside from being knowledgeable, you also have to be prepared for the worst to happen. Broadcasts can and do go wrong, but that’s when commentators really earn their money.

“I think it’s the times when things don’t run smooth that you get more of an indication of how good a commentator is. The audience will never forgive you for any technical issues or issues with the event, it’s what you do to fill that dead air, that’s your job.

“If you stop feeling nervous before events, and don’t feel the pressure, then the magic is gone”

“Sometimes, you only have one camera filming an event, or you don’t have a full list of who is playing or riding, or driving, but you just have to make up for that. Often, fans have more information as it happens, and a better view, than you do.

“And sometimes you have to find things to say when you have nothing to talk about while an event is being delayed.

“You come home exhausted when those things happen, but you think ‘I did alright there’.”

In recent years, Hindhaugh has become the voice of endurance racing across the globe, on Radio Le Mans as well as for other platforms like IMSA Radio and ESPN.

Broadcasting from a football ground is one thing, but commentating on a 24-hour race, sometimes for the entire event, and sometimes without TV-cut pictures, is another all together.

Round the clock

“Doing what I do now, is extremely hard. It’s so tiring, and because you’re talking about sometimes over 100 cars, all with three drivers [in rotation], it becomes a blur trying to remember form from previous races. One weekend I’ll be working in America at Daytona, the next in Italy for a GT race at Monza.”

During a season, Hindhaugh may broadcast live from five 24-hour races in different countries, with completely different sets of cars. Each one is also set over the course of a whole week, with practice and qualifying sessions to work on too.

“You have to have extreme stamina, and you have to be interesting to broadcast for long periods.

“For every driver, you need more than one or two snippets of information. You also need to know different ways of describing the same things. If you keep calling Arnage corner at Le Mans ‘a tight right-hander’ for 24 hours, it’ll get boring.

“One thing I learnt is to write down loads of adjectives for the same thing and having them in front of me. So I’ll have the words: tight, narrow, 90-degree right, a squeeze. It’s little things like that you need to prepare, and prevent yourself from sounding the same every lap.

“Broadcasting is not easy, and that’s why those of us who are good at what we do, are few and far between.

“That’s why if you stop feeling nervous before events, and don’t feel the pressure, then the magic is gone and you should stop.”

To my surprise, I’m sold on ice hockey

When a friend invited me to an ice hockey game during a visit to Nottingham, I raised an eyebrow – is it something that we even play in this country?

But once I’d realised that yes we did, I decided to take him up on the offer and experience the sport firsthand.

“Right from the start, players were being tripped and barged aggressively”

The game I went to was Nottingham Panthers versus Braehead Clans, at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena. We were advised to arrive at the venue half an hour before the match began, and it was only when I got there that I realised why. The place was packed.

It was almost like the atmosphere before a concert – foam fingers, team colours, loads of noise and excitement… having not even previously been aware that this was a sport we played, this scene definitely put me right on that score.

The pre-match build-up was such that I expected a loud and exciting game – and that’s precisely what I got. But more of that later….

Violent

As I entered the arena, there was not an empty seat to be seen. In Nottingham at least, clearly, ice hockey is a very big deal. I may not have known the rules, but already I was impressed, and now even more keen to see the sport being played.

One thing that will shock first-timers is how violent ice hockey is – right from the start, players were being tripped and barged aggressively into the boards surrounding the rink.

I kept looking at the ref wondering if he was going to do anything about it, but I soon realised that this is in fact part of the sport; every challenge is a battle for possession of the puck.

The game, played in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,500, was a thriller with the Panthers coming back from two goals down to beat the Clan 5-3.

Spectacle

One of the things that struck me the most was what a great family atmosphere ice hockey has – despite all the violence on the ice.

Every time a goal was scored, the whole crowd got up to sing and clap in unison; it was as good as a football atmosphere, but without all the aggression and swearing.

“At only £16 a ticket, compared to nearer £50 for a Premier League match, everyone gets their money’s worth”

Unsurprisingly, most of the players were from north America, but it was quite surprising how many Britons are playing at top level in this country as well.

The never-ending breaks and time-outs did get a bit tiresome, but it was an extremely entertaining spectacle and at only £16 a ticket, compared to nearer £50 for a Premier League match, everyone gets their money’s worth.

Nottingham and Braehead play in the Elite Ice Hockey League, which has been the top-tier competition in the UK since the demise of the Ice Hockey Super League in 2003, and is made up of 10 teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, split into Northern and Southern Conferences.

Coverage

There is no relegation or promotion, with teams admitted to the competition by the approval of a board of directors. At the end of the regular season, the top-placed teams go into the play-offs for the British Championship.

Nottingham Panthers are the second oldest EIHL club, behind Sheffield Steelers, whilst Braehead are one of the newest teams, formed in 2010.

As with so many so-called minority-interest sports, media coverage is not particularly high-profile, but Elite Ice Hockey League matches can be seen on Premier Sports in the UK.

Anyone wanting to find out more about the competition should go to the Elite League website

Shinny, a proud Canadian tradition

‘Shinny’ is a word that Canadians grow up using from a very young age. It’s something that’s part of the sporting landscape in every community.

 Its definition is a pick-up game of ice hockey – a contest on the slippery stuff that anybody can turn up for and be a part of.

In the UK, its equivalent is going down to your local park and joining in a game of football – and being welcomed by the people already playing.

“We arrived by car at the local outdoor rink, and the boot was opened to reveal a collection of ice hockey equipment”

Although it’s ice hockey, Shinny participants wear little protective clothing and play without a goalie. The puck is not allowed to rise off the ice for safety reasons. It’s a game which is the epitome of the Canadian childhood in sport.

Shinny, or pond hockey, was originally played on frozen lakes with branches used as sticks and a lump of frozen animal manure for a puck.

Although real hockey sticks and pucks are used these days, it remains a free-for-all with no formal positions or rules.

Born into hockey

I was lucky enough to have a go at playing Shinny on a bitterly cold night in the city of Markham, which borders Toronto on Canada’s east coast.

After we arrived by car at the local outdoor rink, the boot was opened to reveal a collection of ice hockey equipment.

“As we got nearer, I was tantalised by the lights reflecting off the ice”

Kids in Canada are born into this sport. They learn to skate almost as soon as they can walk, and having a boot-full of hockey gear is the norm for most Canadian families.

This is where the analogy with a kickabout in the park breaks down – all you need for that is a ball. The equipment we’d brought with us to Shinny must have cost a fortune.

As we walked down to the public rink with bags of skates, helmets, sticks and pucks, I could hear music belting out from speakers surrounding the ice.

 Tantalised

Although it was already 9.30pm on a Tuesday night and the rink officially closed at 10pm, it was still packed with skaters.

As we got nearer, I was tantalised by the lights reflecting off the ice. Floodlights were positioned all around the rink and impressively lit the whole area. I was taken aback that this was all free.

“Darkness fell, and the magic I had been waiting for was coming to life”

On one side of the rink there was a heated changing room for getting into your skates. On the other was a portakabin, which rented skates and had a security guard who laid down the law to those with sticks and pucks to respect other skaters.

I skated for around half an hour to find my feet and while I’m the first to admit I’m no Wayne Gretzky, the ice was teeming with people who made skating brilliantly look as simple as walking.

Different groups of locals starting to walk down from the car park with their bags hockey gear. The rink was closing, and the security guard made it very apparent that he did not care what everyone did on the ice when he turned off the lights and went home.

Night vision

Darkness fell, and the magic I had been waiting for was coming to life. With the floodlights off and the music stopped, all you could hear was the slap of sticks hitting pucks on the ice.

Shinny had begun without even picking teams. It was a free for all, with the goals made up of either hockey gloves on either side or two boots.

I slapped the puck maybe twice. Everybody else on the ice was far too good for me to keep up. Night vision must be hereditary for Canadians, because even with a dark rink they all could clearly see the black puck.

It felt like a great privilege to take part in Shinny. This sporting tradition is a sacred one to the people of Canada, and is still being upheld by generation after generation.

For as long as there is ice and snow in Canada, there will always be Shinny.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons