‘Sin City’ rolling the dice that ice hockey will be new showstopper on famed strip

NHL becomes first major North American professional sports league to gamble on expansion into Las Vegas with the addition of a franchise

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2016, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2016, 7:23pm

A true visionary can see things most of us cannot and is willing to risk it all regardless of the consequences to fulfil that vision. Popular myth has it that in the early 1940s notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel surveyed a nondescript stretch of desert in the state of Nevada where gambling was legal and envisioned it becoming an international gaming and lifestyle mecca of glitz.

“Some day,” Siegel apparently muttered, “there will be a big hockey team playing in this town as well.”

All of the top sports leagues have poked their heads into “Sin City” to play exhibition games, but none have ever called it home

Of course, this being urban myth, and with all the primary characters long gone, it is difficult to substantiate. But someone had a dream and now, a little more than 70 years later, the National Hockey League is set to become the first of America’s big four professional sporting leagues to call Las Vegas home when an expansion franchise begins play in the 2017-18 season.

All of the top sports leagues have poked their heads into “Sin City” to play exhibition games, but none have ever called it home.

Las Vegas has hosted numerous boxing prize fights, some of them storied, and is the home of the wildly popular UFC.

However, the NFL in particular, chooses to believe that the reason they are the number one sport in the US, as well as a TV ratings colossus, has nothing to do with gambling and everything to do with athletic excellence and competitive balance, hence no team for Vegas because it may present “compromising situations” for some of its players.

But all you have to do is scour the police blogs of NFL players to see that compromising situations are hardly endemic to Las Vegas.

The NHL has no such luxury for this kind of delusional thinking. The red-haired stepchild of North American professional sports leagues, they see a rapidly expanding metropolitan city of more than two million people – the largest in the US without a professional sporting franchise – as well as the most visited destination in the country with over 42 million people in 2015 and they say, Vegas baby!

Throw in a new 18,000-seat arena on the famed strip, as well as a pro-active owner with deep pockets, and the entertainment options in Las Vegas are now going to take on a completely different edge.

Of course, there is still the idea of playing a winter sport in a place where there is no winter culture.

But in a remarkable seven-day span in June those notions were smashed with a thunderous body check.

When Las Vegas was granted a franchise it joined a team in Phoenix, Arizona, and two in Los Angeles that are all within a four- to five-hour drive of each other in the American southwest, one of the few regions of the country that is experiencing a significant population growth.

Of course, hockey’s ancestral home is up north in Canada with pockets of popularity in the US northeast. But both teams in Los Angeles do well and while the team in Phoenix are struggling, there are some positive signs.

The same week that the NHL announced its expansion to Las Vegas, Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane became the first American to capture the Most Valuable Player award in NHL history.

A few days afterwards, something even more momentous occurred when the Toronto Maple Leafs selected 18-year-old wunderkind Auston Matthews with the first overall pick in the NHL draft.

Toronto is the self-described hockey capital of the world; the region has sent more players to the NHL than any other and local media are ravenous and myopic in their coverage of the game.

Yet the Leafs have fallen on hard times and are coming up on 50 years since they last won a Stanley Cup. Matthews is considered a generational talent who has been anointed the franchise saviour.

Born, raised and trained in Phoenix, Matthews had baseball and football teams salivating over his prodigious athletic gifts, but chose hockey because he liked the Coyotes.

A kid from Phoenix is going to save a hockey institution in Toronto? Not even Bugsy Siegel could have seen this.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did. It was Bettman who put another hockey team in Los Angeles and allowed the move of a team from Winnipeg to Phoenix more than 20 years ago. Reviled and loathed in Canada for his soulless corporate, sell-out of the game, Bettman is hardly a sympathetic figure. But he understood that if you want to grow the game you have to take it where there is growth.

Seemingly smug and hopelessly corporate, he is nonetheless entitled to take a bow today. Good, bad or indifferent, he stuck to his vision regardless of the consequences. Hockey, and Las Vegas, will never be the same.