Win City

Success On The Ice And Vision At The Top A Winning Hand In Las Vegas

It was quite the spectacle, even by Las Vegas standards, as the caravan of flattop buses and luxury convertibles carrying members of the Vegas Golden Knights streamed down the famed Las Vegas Strip lined with more than 200,000 rabid hockey fans and curious onlookers. The mile long procession slowly made its way past glitzy casinos complete with pirate ships and dancing water fountains on its way to Toshiba Plaza, which sits adjacent to T-Mobile Arena and where four nights earlier one of the NHL’s newest franchises captured the Stanley Cup. 

A few blocks south of where the parade route made a sharp right turn stood the site of one of the nation’s darkest moments, where on Oct. 1, 2017, only nine days before the Golden Knights’ first NHL home game, a gunman shot and killed 60 people during the Route 91 Harvest music festival. 

"It’s been unbelievable the way the town has adopted this team.”

-Bill Foley, Golden Knights owner 

The memory is still fresh in the hearts and minds of both local residents and the team that has been embraced as much for its winning ways as its outreach into the community. As players, coaches and staff gathered with hockey’s holy grail on the stage, a banner displaying the names of the 60 victims from that fateful night hung overhead.

For the team born in tragedy, it was both a time of joyous celebration and solemn remembrance. 

In six short years, the first professional sports team to call Las Vegas home has become as much a part of the fabric of the community as roulette wheels and all-you-can-eat buffets. Along the way its core group of players who once referred to themselves as “The Misfits” have become as well-known as local celebrities like Wayne Newton and the Blue Man Group.

“It’s been unbelievable the way the town has adopted this team. We’re part of the community now,” Golden Knights owner Bill Foley told USA Hockey Magazine several years ago. “I’m particularly proud of how our players and our team have integrated themselves into the community. That’s part of our success.”

The number of boys, girls, men and women who have embraced the game are telling of that success as well. In the short span of time since the first NHL puck dropped on the desert, USA Hockey registration numbers show that Nevada player participation has grown by more than 260%, while the female ranks have swelled by 571%. 

At the City National Arena, the team’s two-sheet practice facility in nearby Summerlin, ice time is more in demand than a spot at a craps table on a Saturday night.

“We’re busy from 4 in the morning until midnight; it doesn’t stop,” said Sheri Hudspeth, the Golden Knights director of  youth hockey programs and fan development. “We’re using all the ice time and every inch, every hour of ice we can here. So, definitely having more facilities would help, and that’s where we’re looking to expand.”

The interest has even spilled over to outside parks and recreation centers where the Golden Knights have created ball hockey clinics and leagues to satisfy the growing puck passion.

While winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup has peaked local interest even more, Darren Eliot, who oversees the organization’s hockey programming and facility operations, said it remains business as usual following the organization’s original blueprint for success.

“We want to keep moving down the proper path. I don’t think there’s anything like we’re trying to capitalize on it,” said Eliot, who was lured to the desert after a number of years in Detroit where he worked for Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Program and also served as a representative to USA Hockey and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.

As is usually the case in both established hockey markets and those sprouting up in the desert, it comes down to available ice. Foley and his group have built two-sheet facilities in Summerlin and in nearby Henderson, where the Silver Knights, the team’s AHL affiliate, practices and plays since the Golden Knights first arrived. Without any concrete plans on the books, those in the know say that given Foley’s forward thinking more rinks are bound to pop up in the foreseeable future.

“We know we need more ice. We know we need to build over the long term, at least one, maybe two more facilities,” said Eliot, who is also serving as the president of the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association. “Mr. Foley has even talked about that as far back as October that we need to do that. When that exactly happens is the question.”

Whenever that may be, Eliot said the foundation is already in place to handle the groundswell of interest that has been there since the Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their very first season. That unusual level of success right out of the blocks is something that doesn’t happen often in sports, said Eliot, who previously worked with the NHL expansion franchise in Atlanta.

“Typically, you see a spike when a team wins a Stanley Cup,” said the former NHL goaltender. “I don’t know that we’ll necessarily see that here because they’ve been good since day one with four conference finals, two Stanley Cup Finals and the Stanley Cup Championship in six years.”

It’s not just the NHL team’s success that can be attributed to the growth in grassroots numbers. The Golden Knights have recruited a talented staff that has years of experience in running youth programs in other markets and have brought the best practices to incorporate into their own curriculum. 

Giving newcomers the proper foundation, every Golden Knights program starts with Learn to Skate and Learn to Play sessions. From there it’s onto the Lil’ Knights program and then to a house league team. That steady progression is not only evident in the total number of players but in the quality of youngsters who are ready to make their mark on the national stage.

On the girls’ side, the same earmarks of growth have many excited for the future, including the first USA Hockey National Championship eligible team at the 14 & Under level. 

That success, said Hudspeth, starts at the top.

“Mr. Foley and [president of hockey operations] George McPhee are big advocates of girls hockey. And Darren Elliot understands the importance of having female leadership and females in the game,” said the former Minnesota State Mankato player. “From Darren down, and then all the coaches that we have who are very supportive of helping out the girls, it’s really a collaborative effort of everyone in the organization wanting to help grow both the boys’ and the girls’ side.”

When Bill Foley and his Black Knights Sports & Entertainment Group first proposed bringing hockey to town back in 2016, there were those around the game who laughed off the idea as nothing more than a long shot. But in a city that has staked its very existence on beating the odds, there’s no doubt that the future of hockey in the desert is as sure a bet as you’ll find anywhere on the Strip.

More than 200,000 people attended the Golden Knights championship parade on June 17.More than 200,000 people attended the Golden Knights championship parade on June 17.

Issue: 
2023-07

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