How the Ice Hockey team from the desert defied all the odds
Joe Laing, Director of Communications
In June last year, the NHL expansion draft took place and the roster for the newly formed Vegas Golden Knights began to take shape. Finally, Vegas had an ice hockey team, real players in real uniforms with a real logo. But was there any real hope?
Before the season began, USA Today had the Golden Knights pegged as the league’s worst team. Hardly surprising given evidence suggests that expansion teams are terrible. Since the NHL began its expansion in 1967, the league has grown from six to 31 teams. Of the teams that have newly entered the league, none have had a winning record in its inaugural season, (although St. Louis did reach the playoffs), and it has taken five seasons, on average, to see them in the playoffs.
But not in Vegas… the Golden Knights lit it up from the outset finishing with the 5th
best record in the NHL. A new team bounce turned into fairy tale beginning, which was replaced by a dream season. Few would have thought when the draft was made that citizens of sin city would be watching playoff hockey come April. But they were.
One reason why Golden Knights have been better than most is down to how they were able to recruit its players. At the end of last season all the other NHL teams could protect a certain number of players. The rest were fair game. Vegas got to cherry pick established NHL players to form its roster including a former number one overall draft pick and three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie.
The front office systematically built a team based on taking the best available players in each position from each of the other teams and they nailed it. The Golden Knights led the Pacific division from start to finish, swept the LA Kings in the first round of the playoffs and the San Jose Sharks in the second, before beating the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference finals. They are, unbelievably, improbably, four wins from lifting the Stanley Cup.
The fact that Vegas are winning is a massive boost to the NHL, the sport of hockey and the city of Las Vegas itself. While officials will have hoped for success, this exceeds expectation. The sport of hockey in the desert is not an obvious association. Fellow sand dwellers the Arizona Coyotes, have spent 22 seasons in the NHL with muted success. They have managed to make it through the first round of the playoffs only once in that time.
Worse still, they have been hugely unprofitable. Since 2009, Arizona have been beset with plummeting attendances, a losing team and crippling financial difficulties which has seen the league itself picking up the tab. The NHL simply can’t afford for that to happen to Vegas.
The signs are good. Before a puck had even been dropped, more than 16,000 fans had paid up ready to watch in the state of the art T-Mobile arena. According to the league the average attendance at each of the 41-regular season game was 18,042 - (104% of acknowledged capacity).
Off the ice the Golden Knights have been a massive success too. They ranked fourth in NHL merchandise sales in 2017, and first since the start of 2018. Only the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks sold more. The team is loved and people are proud of them.
Regular sport in Vegas seems to be a no brainer. A city, with perennially good weather, built around the service sector, delivering the experiences that fans demand, in a destination that requires no selling. It has a heritage of hosting major sporting events too, albeit most have taken place inside a ring, and the audience for which is predominately from ‘out of town’ who are ticking off an item on their bucket list.
These out of towners are another ace up the city’s sleeve. Tourism in Vegas is incredibly stable and that presents a viable audience. Over three million tourists visit the city every month. They are looking for experiences and they spend money. The attraction of throwing a sporting event into the mix, rather than a Celine Dion concert, is hugely compelling – it doesn’t really matter who they are supporting. For the league, the city and the club a dollar is a dollar.
For the city this is important. Spending on gambling across Las Vegas is on the decline. More people are visiting but they are diversifying their experiences. Sport is a natural distraction especially for millennials who made up a third of first time visitors to Vegas in 2017. Ice in the desert is a welcome refreshment to visitors.
It’s not just the NHL that thinks so. No sooner had a pair of skates begun to be sharpened that the NFL’s Oakland Raiders held a vote to approve its relocation from California to Las Vegas by 2020. The vote passed by a margin of 31 to 1. Major League Baseball has mentioned the city in dispatches too. The success of Golden Knights will almost certainly ignite further conversations across more sports.
If Golden Knights were to lift Lord Stanley’s cup, it would crown a fairy tale beginning, for a team that started the year at 500-1 outsiders. Whilst few would have backed them at that price, the NHL’s gamble of hockey in the sun appears to be paying off.