Here’s something the NHL should know: The first American hockey team to ever play for the Stanley Cup was called the Portland Rosebuds. That was way back in 1916. The first American hockey team to actually win the damn thing was called the Seattle Metropolitans. That was the following year. I should also make note of the fact that I live in Seattle and have seen the occasional Metropolitans sweater, even though they ceased to exist in 1924.
I figured that might be worth pointing out because there’s hockey history in those cities. The people know it and respect it. Both cities are well inside hockey territory and have hockey audiences… And no team to root for. Hell, Quebec City lost a team! Meanwhile, the NHL is spearheading the major professional sports leagues’ recent morbid fascination with Las Vegas and ignoring real markets in the big race to get a team there. As opposed to, you know, giving a new team to a city that’s had hockey since time immemorial.
The long and storied history of hockey in Las Vegas stretches back to the ancient year of 1991. That was the year the NHL decided to make a try at a little novelty idea: Hey, why not hold a hockey game outside? In Las Vegas? During the preseason? Yes, this looks like another one of Gary Bettman’s crazy schemes, but we can’t actually discredit him for this one. The idea was first proposed in 1988 by Rich Rose, who was the president of Caesars World Sports and a big fan of the New York Rangers. The NHL’s marketing director liked the idea, but suggested that Rose try to sell it on the Los Angeles Kings first because the then-recent addition of Wayne Gretzky to their roster was sparking interest in hockey across southern California. They had become a high profile team, and the league thought the Rangers might be interested if the Kings signed on first. A rink and seats were shacked up for a cool $135,000, Rose made his pitch, and the Kings played against the Rangers at an outdoor rink on September 27, 1991. Making sure the surface held together required three times the normal amount of refrigeration equipment, and the lines were strips of fabric instead of paint.
In 1993, the International Hockey League tried to tap the market with the Las Vegas Thunder. They did about as well as you could expect from them, compiling a record of… 264-177-49 in six years of existence, which is actually pretty damn good. They played in the Finals twice and had the league’s best record twice. The Las Vegas Wranglers ran from 2003 to 2014 in the third-tier ECHL, and they didn’t fare too badly either. Also, the league was able to draw fan interest in Las Vegas by hosting the Frozen Fury, a preseason game between the Kings and Colorado Avalanche which started at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in 1997 and ran every year there since. And the NHL Awards are also held in Las Vegas for some reason.
Despite these weird ties, Gary Bettman – who became the NHL’s Commissioner in 1993 – continued to talk as Gary Bettman does, which is frequently out of his ass. As recently as 2009, Bettman was denying that Las Vegas was a potential relocation spot for the Arizona Coyotes, or the Nashville Predators, or the Atlanta Thrashers, or some other team that Jim Balsillie wasn’t trying to buy and move to Hamilton that week. It wasn’t until 2014 that Bettman approved a season ticket drive in Las Vegas to try to gauge interest in a team. The drive started in February 2015 and somehow met its goal in April. In July that year, the NHL said it pulled in applications from two cities requesting expansion teams. One was Sin City. The other was Quebec City, the jilted French-Canadian lover that lost its beloved Nordiques to Denver just in time for them to become good. On June 22, 2015, Gary “Hockey in the Desert WILL be My Fucking Legacy!” Bettman decided to take the road to Nevada. Clearly looking for a repeat of the walking disaster that is the Arizona Coyotes, Las Vegas was granted the expansion.
Now, about a name. The primary owner of the team is Bill Foley. Foley attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, which means he’s clearly not a dummy. As a loyal student, Foley’s first instinct was to call the team the Las Vegas Black Knights as a tribute to his school. He also admitted that the Black Knights name was serving as something of a stand-in until he could think of something that worked, because he didn’t want to untangle a legalese web with Army’s famed team. He thought of a handful of other names too, admitting that several of them were decoys used to keep the big reveal a secret while he pored over the real choices. There was quite a long list of excellent names for a Las Vegas franchise: Names like Gamblers, Aces, Blackjacks, Rollers, Bandits, Jackpots, and Dealers were all instantly thrown out because the NHL wrote up an insane stipulation against the team having a name referencing what Las Vegas is best known for! I figure the team could have gotten around such a thing by calling itself the Corleones or the Pescis or some other backhanded reference to a Las Vegas gangster movie, but se la vie. Word eventually leaked that the final choices were down to Desert Knights, Sand Knights, Silver Knights, and Golden Knights. Since Las Vegas is a city that rips everything off, I’m shocked Dark Knights and Gotham Knights weren’t considered. Desert and Sand Knights had no character. Silver Knights would have been a good pick because Nevada is called The Silver State. But it’s also a leading producer of gold, and gold is a traditional Las Vegas color. And we read about gold rushes in history books all the time. People go to Las Vegas to strike gold, not strike silver. Golden Knights it was. With the league’s restrictions against gambling-themes names, it really couldn’t have been anything else. Also, Foley liked that Las Vegas was frequently a single-name city. You tell people about how you went to Vegas. You don’t brag about visits to York or Angeles or Francisco.
The Vegas Golden Knights.
Considering all the ways the team name could have went wrong, it’s a pretty damn good name. If anything got screwed up, it was the reveal itself. First, the name got leaked hours before the ceremony, which probably had something to do with the team website going live before it was supposed to. Then what I assume was supposed to be a badass montage started with a clip of Gary Bettman before switching to… A placeholder screen! Then the Clark County Twitter account mistakenly tweeted about their new NFL team.
“We’re gonna do better in the rink, I’ll tell you that,” said Foley during the revealing brouhaha. “We’re gonna see about that,” says every NHL fan in response. Foley is talking about winning the Stanley Cup within six years. I guess the continued dilution of NHL talent doesn’t make such a prediction THAT farfetched; the league’s playoff format being what it is, a no-talent team can make a real run as long as matchups are favorable and the goalie doesn’t suck. Since ownership from the greedy, corrupt Original Six era is long dead and current owners all know the value of a competitive league, the NHL wants Vegas to get pretty respectable pretty quickly. The expansion draft is coming, and the Knights are going to have to draft one player from every other team in the league. I’m not sure what the draft rules will be this time; Deadspin listed a couple of possibilities, and they both mean two things: First, no matter who gets protected, the Knights are going to have a handful of legitimate starters. Second, there’s a good chance one of your favorite team’s starters will end up in Vegas’s steel grey and gold. The general manager of the Knights is George McPhee, who has some serious credentials: He started his management career with the Vancouver Canucks in 1992 as the vice president and director of hockey operations. In five years with the ‘Nucks, he helped the team make the playoffs four times, win a division title, and go to a Final which they damn near won against the Rangers. In 1997, he became the general manager of the Washington Capitals, a position he held until 2014. During his reign, the Caps made their first Final in 1998, won seven division titles and the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy, drafted Alexander Ovechkin, and promoted coach Bruce Boudreau.
With the track record of expansion teams, feel free to call Foley the impossible optimist. Even with McPhee building the team, the minority owners are the brothers Maloof, who owned the NBA shitshow called the Sacramento Kings from 1998 until 2013. If you’re an NBA fan, you’ll note that the Kings went from being a true contender in the first few years of their ownership to being the league joke just a few years later. They’re still a joke, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a coincidence.
Cool name; awesome logo; hired a GM with a serious track record; have that fresh new team scent
The Maloof brothers are minority owners; will more than likely suck for a long time; will lose its fans once the fresh new team scent wears off and fans see how much they suck; stability will be largely dependent on tourist dollars which may or may not be getting shoved into slot machines; Quebec City got fucked again; proper website and shop don’t exist yet; jerseys don’t exist either; OH MY FUCKING GOD, I can’t fucking BELIEVE the NHL chose to go down THIS road again
Should you be a fan?
Not unless you like good branding. If we project what the Vegas Golden Knights are going to do based on the NHL’s track record with recent expansions, then that’s all they’ll have going for them for a long, LONG time.