The city of Las Vegas is all about bright lights, endless gambling, and sensational nightlife. Not ice hockey. Definitely not ice hockey. But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, right? The City of Sin seems to have a few surprises up its sleeve.
It might very well be the most famous piece of road in the world. The Strip, about 4.2 miles (or 6.8 kilometers) long, is lined with the most extravagant, stunning, infamous hotels and casinos; in the middle, just off of it, south of the Bellagio and left of the MGM Grand, stands the T-Mobile Arena. Completed in 2016, it filled a void.
Known as the official home of the UFC, it has hosted several colossal boxing matches too. It would probably be easier to list artists who are not (that) famous but have performed there, but to name a few: Guns N’Roses, Coldplay, Drake, The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Metallica, Swedish House Mafia, Post Malone… And yet, the cornerstone of the new arena would be ice hockey. Sports is what it was built for.
Sure, technically speaking, the history of sports in Las Vegas goes way back. A minor league baseball team called the Las Vegas Wranglers was first founded in 1947, twelve years before the world-famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign was erected. Vegas was home to somewhere around 20,000 residents back then. Right now, there are 17 active sports teams ranging from team tennis to women’s roller derby around the city.
They have seen the Dustdevils (CISL), the Quicksilvers (NASL), the Locomotives (UFL), the Tabagators (WPSL)… but until 2017, Vegas had not had a major sports team in any major league. Ever. Not in baseball, not in basketball, not in football (not to be confused with soccer), and most definitely not in ice hockey. In a place with more than 300 days of sun and ice mostly served in drinks, hockey sounds a bit ludicrous. And yet…
The long wait
Before we continue, you probably knew beforehand or figured it out already – Vegas has an ice hockey team now. They are called the Golden Knights, and they are good. Really good, actually, just six years into their history. But how did it happen for the city and why did it take until 2017 for such a big market to be included?
For decades, legal sports betting was the big red flag turning franchises away from Vegas, and even as the rules became more lenient, it was seen as a risk to move to a city that mostly lives off tourism. Watching professional sports has been America’s favourite pastime activity for more than a century, but more often than not, people support their local team.
And the community was just not there in Vegas. A city boasting more than 150,000 hotel rooms only reached the same number of people in the 1970s. With plenty of sensational entertainment already available and Vegas seen as a 24/7 metropolis (meaning people living there would be working during nights and weekends as well), the handicaps were clear to see.
Then there was the arena issue. The old arenas – capable of hosting between 5,000 and 40,000 people – were good for almost anything, but not designed to be the homes of professional sports teams. After years of grandiose yet empty promises of building a new, suitable one, the T-Mobile Arena was completed in 2016, and just three months after being opened, the NHL approved an expansion to Vegas.
Adapting to hockey
Finally, on October 10th, 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights were set to play their inaugural home game. But nine days earlier, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened just a mile away. 61 were killed, 867 injured. It was the worst possible scenario for many, but it also helped unite the city. And their very own Golden Knights gave everything to bring joy to the people. They paid their condolences, put four past the Arizona Coyotes in the first period, and won 5-2.
The Cinderella story continued throughout the season. They made the playoffs as the winners of their division before overcoming the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, and the Winnipeg Jets. Historically, only the St. Louis Blues in 1968 had made the Stanley Cup Finals in their debut season; the Golden Knights went one better and defeated the Washington Capitals at home to go 1-0 up in the series.
In the end, it was not meant to be. The Capitals won the next four games to lift their first-ever (and so far, only) Stanley Cup. But for the people of Las Vegas, it was enough. They adopted the Golden Knights from the very first moment. “There are no hockey fans in Las Vegas. There are Golden Knights fans,” Darren Eliot, a VGK high-ranked official, said to ESPN in 2020. “They are learning what offside is and what icing is, but they’ve immediately embraced the sport through this team.”
Over six seasons, the Knights are averaging more than 100% on capacity. It is just not a hockey game, it is a spectacle with Elvises, showgirls, and knights in armor roaming the stands. There is plenty of VGK merchandise around the city, from around 60,000 car license plates to countless shirts, sweaters, caps, and everything else feasible. It has Vegas written over it.
To their credit, it is much more than just a show. While the city of Buffalo has had teams in the NHL and the NFL for 63 years and is yet to win a championship, it took Las Vegas just six seasons to get their hands on the Stanley Cup. Just last month, they thoroughly enjoyed raising their first banner to the rafters Vegas style, but also made sure to pay tribute to the victims of the 2017 shooting once again. One for all, all for one.
Overall, the Golden Knights have made the playoffs five times in six attempts and started the new season 7-0. Time to jump on the bandwagon, even if you are not a fan of hockey. They already conquered more hearts than expected. And the Knights just started the Las Vegas sports boom.
In 2020, the Oakland Raiders NFL team relocated to Las Vegas; in 2027, the Oakland Athletics of MLB plan to follow. NBA has also been flirting with Sin City for quite some time, and a WNBA team – the Las Vegas Aces – has a great track record to show with two titles in five seasons.
Oh, and if you came here looking to learn more about ice hockey, sorry about that. As compensation, a few storylines to follow into the 2023/24 NHL season: Alexander Ovechkin catching the uncatchable Wayne Gretzky in the goal-scoring charts (currently still 70 short), Sidney Crosby going for another title at 36 (to equal Gretzky at four Stanley Cups), and Connor Bedard becoming the next big thing from Canada (he already scored against the Golden Knights, gifting them their first loss of the season). Maybe we will stop the puck on these guys next time.