February 2017

Home Ice?

A Hockey Fan Balances Loyalty to His Hometown Team With a Growing Excitement for the Arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights

By Skids Poppe

Until last year, my girlfriend August didn’t know the difference between a puck and a stick. Okay, that’s not really fair. I’m sure if I put pictures of both in front of her and asked her to identify which was which, she’d probably figure it out through the process of elimination. She’s not stupid, my Ms. Everywhere, and could probably assume the long wooden thing was the stick which would make the round rubber thing the puck but the point is that until last year, she wasn’t a hockey fan and that is what’s really important to this story.

Last year, I finally convinced her to go to a hockey game with me. I know people so we had box seats down at the Honda Center in Anaheim to watch the Ducks play. I’ve been a fan of the boys in orange and gold since they were the boys in eggplant and jade (and were, in fact, Mighty) but August was never much into winter sports, having grown up in Southern California. So usually, whenever I went to a game, I took my best pal Guantanamo with me. Unfortunately, he was busy that night. I reluctantly asked August, anticipating her rejection and was pleasantly surprised when she said “sure, I’ll go. But you owe me one.”

We went and before two periods were up, she was converted. I think it was the fights that did it. August liked the fights.

Since then, though, we’ve relocated to Las Vegas so our hockey viewing has been mostly relegated to TV. Evidently we missed the heyday of the ECHL Wranglers and while August does enjoy baseball (“Go Blue Crew!” she made me type that) Triple-A ball with the 51s wasn’t really her speed.

Then last year things changed. It was announced that Las Vegas was getting a major league team (please, don’t say a “professional” sports team – we’ve (yes, I feel like a local already) had those for years, going all the way back to Jai Alai when Bally’s was still the MGM), an NHL expansion team was moving into town. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Me and August’d be able to see some good, hard hitting, fast skating action and, since the team was in the same division, I could see my Ducks when they came to town several times a year.

August, on the other hand, was also thrilled, but for a different reason. Since she was a new fan of the game, she never really felt like my team should be her team. The Brits understand this. Some British football-fan friends of mine have pointed out: Couples can’t root for the same team – there needs to be at least two days a year, when the teams play each other, that they hate each other. So August was going to be rooting for the new team, then.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it was great she felt enthused. But on the other hand now I felt a bit out of sorts. This was one of the cool things about Las Vegas, that since there were no major league teams here from the big four sports (football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) you were free to root for whoever you wanted. There are local bars all over town, catering to every team you can name. You’re from Pittsburgh and love The Steelers? Great. Hit up Noreen’s on East Trop. From Wisconsin and miss The Packers? Jackson’s on W. Flamingo is the place for you. So when we wanted to hit a bar to watch some Ducks action, no problem, we could go out and be surrounded by other friends and fans.

What’s going to happen now, though? When the “Vegas Golden Knights” show up next season, do I suddenly become less of a fan of my boys if I root for the new guys? And seriously, what happened to the “Las”? That’s like calling a Bay Area team the “Frisco 49ers,” which is just not Cricket…as those same British friends would say.

So okay… August gets a “Knight-hood” (and yes, I’m claiming the marketing rights to that one). I can live with that because I can still root for my team. But then there’s the bigger picture: Why hasn’t Las Vegas ever hosted a permanent major league team before? Sure, there’s the old standby reasoning that gambling made it impossible. The rule was that the legal books couldn’t take bets on local teams (fears of bribes and payoffs to influence on field performance – number one answer) and since there’s a lot of money to be made by betting on the major leaguers, how could you exclude the (Las) Vegas Whatevers™ when making book? You couldn’t because then you’d also be excluding the team the Whatevers™ were playing against, right? Easier to just not have a team we could call our very own.

Except that doesn’t hold water since the ban was lifted in 2001 and the University of Nevada teams (Rebels and Wolfpack, which were pretty much the big targets for the betting folk) showed no undue signs of throwing games. Besides, the NBA and NHL have each held preseason or all-star games in town so I don’t think that’s it.

The other reason mentioned is that Las Vegas isn’t big enough to support a major league team. But that one is kinda BS as well. According to the Census Urban Area List (look at me doing research) Las Vegas and Henderson combined are the 23rd largest urban area in the country so even when you count teams that double up in urban areas (New York and Los Angeles/Anaheim, I’m looking at you!) that still means there are a bunch of places with fewer people and yet are supporting a major league team just fine.

So really? What’s the deal? The only reason I’m asking is cause I care about August and I care that she cares about her hockey team and I don’t want the Knight Faithful to be disappointed (Knight-fall?) and heart broken if the “Golden Goal Scorers” decide to vacate soon after arriving. Okay, so the XFL and United Football League’s Las Vegas teams didn’t work out, but you can’t blame the team since the whole league folded. The Canadian Football League, though, they had a team here in 1994. Only 1994. The Posse (and even I’m not going to crack about the nicknames available) lasted only one season while the league is still going strong with our northern neighbors. But that’s football and probably should be kept off the conversational table at least until the Raiders actually sign the deal which will get them a new stadium and a 702 phone number.

There’s baseball in the form of the 51s. I mentioned them before. They’ve been going strong for 34 years in town, even surviving a name change (they started as the Stars) but they seem like an afterthought, a place to take a date on a hot summer’s eve. Not a real sports team (of course, since I see baseball as an excuse to drink beer and eat hot dogs, this might be my own bias.

Hockey though, maybe hockey has a chance to actually survive.

The Las Vegas Thunder spent six years (1993-1999) as a franchise with the International Hockey League – the minors, but still decent. They were actually pretty good, making it to the post season in five of their six seasons, but they still didn’t survive, due in no small part to losing their home ice. They played over at the Thomas and Mack center and when their contract was up, it was up – no renegotiation in sight.

Same thing happened to the Wranglers who played at the Orleans. Lost their arena. But then, if the teams were performing, why would a venue dump them? Maybe Las Vegas isn’t cut out to be a sports town? Maybe the transient nature of the population we thought we had conquered isn’t really gone? The former president of the Wranglers, Billy Johnson, said in an interview a couple years ago with Scott Burnside over at ESPN (there’s that research again) that “This is not a sports town. This is an event town.” That makes sense to me. Then again, Johnson is the guy behind the Wranglers’ midnight games and wacky promotions so maybe he’s on to something?

All I really know for sure is the team needs the town more than the town needs the team. If needs be, we still have our neighborhood bars to watch our teams play and I’m sure August will get over it if the Knights prove to be yet another team who just don’t connect with the locals.

But for her sake, and ours as a community, I’m hoping that’s not the case. I’m hoping they succeed because I have room for two teams in heart (except when the Ducks are playing locally). In fact, I already got her a Vegas Golden Knights jersey for her birthday in April. Shhhh. Don’t tell her.

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