Two years in the making: Vegas ready to make NHL jump
(Photo by Peter Manderino, Bruins Daily)
There was a time where no one thought hockey in a warm-weather city like Los Angeles could work. Fifty years and two Stanley Cups later, those doubters have been proved wrong. Add in the combined 50 years between the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks – Anaheim’s 2007 Stanley Cup victory included – and those doubters have even more so been proved wrong.
Now that the 2016-17 season has concluded with the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup for the second season in a row, the focus shifts to the league’s off-season and the Vegas Golden Knights. It’s now time for another warm-weather city to prove doubters wrong, but this is no ordinary North American city, this is Las Vegas. For years the gambling capital of the world was always the hot bed of rumors as the next city to land a major sports team. But concerns mostly centered around just that, gambling, halted any potential of that happening.
Well, at least till 2015.
On February 15, 2015, a season ticket drive began. Any interested parties were asked to place a deposit for potential season tickets. A move created by the NHL as a way to gauge interest in bringing a franchise to Vegas. By April, the then unnamed franchise hit its goal of 10,000 season tickets sold.
With Quebec City the lone competition as bidders for an expansion franchise, the dream of professional hockey in Vegas became much more of a reality. On June 22, 2016, the National Hockey League officially announced that the league would be expanding and Las Vegas would be the new home to the league’s 31st team.
Owned by Bill Foley and the popular Maloof Family, the group quickly began to fill out positions in the organization. On November 7, 2016, the team announced the hiring of Nehme E. Abouzeid as the team’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
This past February, the team held an open house at its new home, T-Mobile Arena. The 24-hour event was filled with season ticket holders, prospecting season ticket holders and individuals who were being introduced to hockey for the first time.
For Abouzeid, the organization was very excited about the momentum that they have gained and built upon since launching their ticket drive. They all know the best is yet to come.
“Yeah, I mean we did a ticket drive, now we are going on two years celebrating our ticket drive which was really the founding element to get the team here. So, people put down deposits on season tickets and before a team was even awarded and a vast majority of those deposits were converted into full season tickets,” Abouzeid told Bruins Daily this past February at the team’s open house.
“So, we’re very pleased with how we’re trending, the NHL’s pleased, so this event was set out to kind of close those remaining empty seats on full seasons and unveil our 11 and 22 game packs.”
Anytime you bring a professional sport to a new location, it’s always difficult to really get a good grasp on how high interest will be. Vegas is a city full of transplants, and figuring out if locals would welcome a team in their city that’s other than the one they grew up cheering for is no easy task.
Growing up in the Boston area, Abouzeid is a transplant himself, but don’t let that fool you. Vegas is home to Abouzeid and the even if he wasn’t in the role he is currently in with the team, the Golden Knights would be his team.
“I’ve been in this market [Vegas] for 15 years now and if you ask me where’s home I am going to say Vegas,” Abouzeid added. “People want to root for something homegrown, something local and I may have those loyalties to the Bruins maybe one game a year, but really this is my team and a lot of people feel the same way, they want something homegrown.”
February’s event was all the proof Abouzeid and anyone else needed that hockey in Las Vegas will work and will thrive like many of the other markets across the NHL.
“We doubled our sales goal today [February’s open house] of incremental sales, so we doubled it and we are not even done with the event yet,” Abouzeid said. “By 2:00 PM we were just over 3,000 turnstiles that started at 8 AM, but you know Vegas is a three-shift town: day, swing and overnight.”
For fans of the other 30 National Hockey League teams, there are many great places to see your favorite team on the road. Catching a game amongst the passionate fans inside Montreal’s Bell Centre is always a great time. It’s nearly impossible to not get the chills during James Cornelison’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” inside Chicago’s United Center.
Sure, T-Mobile Arena is a beautiful brand new building, but it’s the aura that Las Vegas brings that will make Vegas a top-of-the-list destination for opposing fans. From hockey to dinner to entertainment, Vegas has it all.
“Well, you have the excitement of Vegas right here, you turn it into a vacation,” Abouzeid stated. “You’re going to have the excitement of the Vegas strip. You’re seven minutes away from any hotel room, you’re one uber ride, one limo ride away from a glorious arena that only opened last April, amazing luxury boxes, every seat is a good seat and so what’s not to like? You could be watching a game at seven and you could have a nice dinner by 10 or going to a club.”
Places like Boston, Toronto, Montreal, and others are always a tough ticket for visiting fans to obtain tickets as demand is high and prices of the secondary market are sometimes through the roof. Abouzeid doesn’t see that being an issue in Vegas.
“We will definitely have single games available for when you come in for a marquee matchup, a premier game,” Abouzeid said. “We are going to have tickets that tourist can buy, we are going to cut all those travel industry deals with the people that sell travel and tourism products. We are going to be very tourist friendly when it comes to that and in fact, we are putting those building blocks in place now.”
T-Mobile arena will hold 17.500 for hockey games.
When this whole thing started Abouzeid and company had no idea what to expect. But with the help of many, the Vegas Golden Knights are already a big hit in Vegas and the puck hasn’t even dropped yet.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. We had a two-year-old ticket campaign, probed how the local market would respond,” Abouzeid said about the process of becoming the 31st NHL team. “People have stepped up, we have transplants like myself who grew up In cold weather climates, I’m a Boston guy myself and basically I grew up with hockey and I wanted to pass it along to my kids.”
The Golden Knights certainly have been busy since February’s event. On March 5th, the franchise signed their first official player, Reid Duke, to a three-year entry-level deal. On April 13th, the team named Gerard Gallant the team’s first head coach in franchise history, followed by announcing a multi-year affiliation with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
Tonight, though is the biggest night to date for the Vegas franchise: the Expansion Draft.
The Expansion Draft will allow the Knights to select one unprotected player from each NHL club in order to fill out their roster. The 30 current teams had the option to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender or, one goaltender and eight skaters regardless of position. Only players with more than two years of professional experience — NHL or AHL as defined in the collective bargaining agreement — will be included in the draft, and players with no move clauses are automatically protected.
After the Expansion Draft comes the NHL Entry Draft and then the start of free agency on July 1st. Both events will keep the Golden Knights very busy as they mold their roster for their inaugural season and seasons to come.
Trade rumors surrounding the Golden Knights have been hot since the start of the off-season and should only continue to intensify following the Expansion Draft.
Hockey fans around the world will be paying close attention to Las Vegas and the moves made by the league’s newest franchise. Las Vegas is ready to prove to those eyes there just as much of a hockey market as any other of the league’s teams.