(LVSportsBiz.com founder’s note: Special guest columnists will occasionally contribute their thoughts on Las Vegas’ dynamic sports-business scene. LVSportsBiz.com welcomes book author, former newspaper writer and North Carolina sportsman/historian Willie Drye to offer a few words on what it was like for a new NHL team to be plant roots in a sunbelt market in North Carolina. It’s timely stuff as the Vegas Golden Knights launch their inaugural season. The Golden Knights play the St. Louis Blues tonight at T-Mobile Arena.)
By WILLIE DRYE
In years back, when someone mentioned big-time NHL hockey, Las Vegas didn’t leap to mind. Sure, there were the Thunder and Wranglers. But it’s cities like Duluth and Saskatoon and Buffalo, where it gets cold in September and they measure snowfall in feet, and no one puts on a coat until the temperature drops well below 20 degrees, where they always talk pucks, slap shots and hip checks.
But I’m not here to make snarky remarks about the National Hockey League coming to Nevada. I think Las Vegas probably is going to become a good and perhaps great hockey town. I say this because I watched the NHL Carolina Hurricanes make a stumbling start in North Carolina 20 years ago. I saw what it took for a team to build fan loyalty and gain a foothold among local sports fans, and eventually entice even my wife and me to become fans.
I think the Vegas Golden Knights are far ahead of where the Canes were at this point in their existence, and probably will build a rabid fan base. Here’s why I foresee a glittering future for the team:
- Their arena issues are settled. The Golden Knights will be the primary tenant in a spiffy new sports palace with no uncertainty about who is the marquee attraction.
- The Golden Knights’ management is working hard to understand their fan base. There will be no misperceptions or misplaced expectations.
- The Golden Knights are an expansion team, not a relocated team leaving bad karma in their former home.
- The town’s loyalties will be intensely focused on the Golden Knights. As team vice president for ticketing and sales Todd Pollock told LVSportsbiz.com founder Alan Snel some time ago, Las Vegas fans have been watching major league sports from afar for a long time. They’re more than ready to support their own home team. And the longing for that home team has probably sharpened since UNLV men’s basketball is no longer a regular among the nation’s elite college programs.
- The NFL will be coming to Las Vegas in 2020 and will siphon off some of the city’s attention and affection. But by that time the Golden Knights should be well established and won’t be adversely affected by the arrival of the Raiders.
It was a different story when the Hartford Whalers left New England and moved to Raleigh for the 1997-98 season.
Our state is obsessed with college basketball, and it’s the birthplace of NASCAR. We’ve produced hundreds of Major League baseball players so we understand that game, and every few years at least one of our five major universities fields a pretty good football team. So putting NBA and NFL teams here made some sense. Putting the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte was only proper.
But it seemed foolish, however, to put an NHL team where sports passions are ruled by Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and winters aren’t cold enough for kids to play pond hockey.
Most little old ladies coming out of Raleigh churches on Sunday mornings probably had a passable understanding of Dean Smith’s Four Corners offense. But icing, or power plays, or dump-and-chase, or penalty killing? Totally foreign to our sports culture.
The team played their first two seasons in Greensboro—about 80 miles from Raleigh—while their new arena was being built. But Greensboro fans wouldn’t support a temporary team, and the Canes’ intended fan base had a three- or four-hour round trip to attend games.
Things improved some when the Canes moved into their posh new Raleigh arena in 1999. But then team management tripped over their own egos. They assumed the 2.7 million people in Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Chapel Hill and environs would come to their games simply because they were, after all, the NHL.
Didn’t happen. Canes’ management did a very public mea culpa and launched a sincere and effective public relations campaign to educate fans about the game and persuade them to support the team. By the time my wife and I started regularly attending games in 2009, the Canes had won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and were often selling out their 18,600-seat arena.
When we saw the Canes defeat the Boston Bruins in a Stanley Cup playoff game in Raleigh in May 2009, the atmosphere was as loud and raucous as any ACC basketball game I’ve ever seen.
The Canes haven’t made the playoffs since then and attendance has sagged a bit. There’s been speculation about the team leaving.
Canes’ officials say they’re not going anywhere and vow to get back into the playoffs. No doubt the Golden Knights will have their own ups and downs on the ice and in the standings. But the new Las Vegas NHL franchise spared itself the awkward debut the Carolina Hurricanes made two decades ago.
Willie Drye is a contributing editor for National Geographic News and the author of the IPPY-Award winning book, For Sale-American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold An Impossible Dream In Florida. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Visit his blog, Drye Goods.