Hitting The Jackpot

The Early Success Of The Golden Knights Is Dealing Youth Hockey Efforts In Las Vegas A Winning Hand
Pat Evans

Growing up in Las Vegas, Scott Zucker never had an interest in playing hockey.

Even when he had children, there was no reason to believe they'd play hockey. After all, they lived in the desert. But when his oldest son, Evan, went to a party at a roller rink and saw an advertisement for roller hockey and asked to play, Zucker couldn't to say no. The chance participation led to a lifetime in the game for Zucker's family.

Today, Zucker is the president of the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association and his son, Jason, is in his eighth season with the Minnesota Wild.

Despite the Zucker family's experience with hockey, Nevada was largely a barren hockey market-ranked 49th in state participation-until last year when the Vegas Golden Knights arrived. With the team's success in its inaugural season, which included an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, the state's youth hockey has leaped by unimaginable amounts.

"It was sporadic," Zucker said of hockey prior to the Golden Knights. "Our numbers have gone up and it's 100 percent due to the Golden Knights."

The Golden Knights doubled the sheets of ice in Las Vegas when the organization opened its practice facility, City National Arena, and launched a comprehensive youth development program, led by Matt Flynn, who had spent a decade leading the Washington Capitals youth program prior to making the move west.

Flynn now views the previous lack of major youth hockey infrastructure as a blessing as it has allowed the Golden Knights freedom to set up consistent programming across the city. Other markets might seem easier with high participation but with more rinks and involved parties come heavier politics, Flynn said. 

"The Golden Knights coming here, there was a buzz as the first professional sports franchise, so it really provided an opportunity to re-pour the foundation in a more meaningful way with a higher sense of purpose, commitment and consistency," Flynn said. "I came here to a blank slate. It's great because it's allowed us to do it the right way from Day 1."

Flynn came to Vegas with an easy plan, the first step of which was establishing a team identity and building fans. With his resume, it was fairly easy to get those parties already involved in local youth hockey to buy into his programming, which starts with a skating academy.

More than 1,000 kids have graduated through that program, many of which go on to Learn to Play programming.

The Golden Knights also launched an expansive street hockey curriculum through Clark County Public Schools. Last year 63 middle schools took part, and it has expanded this year with the addition of 228 elementary schools. It includes teacher training, a handbook for students and a free skating pass.

"Hopefully they pick up some knowledge with a stick in their hands," Flynn said. "The biggest hope for me is they have fun. Maybe in their household they're used to flipping past the Golden Knights game on TV, now maybe they stop on it or, even better, seek it out.

"They see the guys doing what they did in school and now we have a connection."

Prior to each of the Golden Knights first two seasons, the organization has embarked on a road trip to various western cities to promote hockey, including Reno, the state's other major city. 

Reno doesn't currently have an ice sheet and most of the youth players in Reno end up registering in California, Zucker said. That should change soon as a rink is under construction in the northern Nevada city. 

The ECHL has also expressed interest in Reno for several years, an interest likely heightened with the arrival of the Golden Knights.

Reno is substantially smaller than Las Vegas, which has its own ice shortage with just five sheets of ice. Zucker said there are plans in the works to build another two-sheet facility on the city's east side.

"It has proven to be a limiting factor way sooner than we were anticipating," Flynn said. "We're running out of ice, but that's a good problem. Every faucet is on and we're trying to figure out where it's flooding."

A limiting factor both Flynn and Zucker mentioned is referees. Zucker particularly seems focused on recruiting more to ensure a steady pool for the growing amount
of games.

Flynn is happy with the early success but knows there's plenty more room to grow and untapped demographics to reach. 

There's now a good foundation to keep the Nevada hockey market growing, and the pace is far ahead of what anyone would have expected. Winning attracts fans and fans want to play.

"The NHL in Vegas proved to be a huge success," Zucker said. "Winning has a way with that, you couldn't have written a better script. It just hooked the fan base." 



Pat Evans is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.




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