NHL’S HOTTEST TEAM… VEGAS By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Expansion team sits atop league standings


While beleaguered Sabres fans slog through yet another dreadful season, one that will be the seventh season (and counting) without a playoff appearance, across the country a success story is unfolding that is captivating not only the hockey world, but the entire spectrum of professional sports.

Las Vegas… LAS VEGAS, of all places has their new expansion hockey team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Their team is comprised of mostly castoffs that were cut loose in last year’s expansion drafts.

The league’s history going forward from the expansion era that began in the 60s when the league doubled in size form six to twelve teams is pockmarked with expansion teams that fared poorly in their inaugural season. The marker is still the 1974-1975 Washington Capitals, which posted a 8-67-5 record that season, highlighted by a 17 game losing streak and only made less abysmal thanks to two meaning less game wins in their final week.

Ottawa, the New York Islanders, the long gone Atlanta Thrashers and Kansas City Scouts, all on ice failures as they began their existences.

Yet here we are in Las Vegas, and their Golden Knights would be top contenders as Presidents Trophy winners if the season ended today.

Everything about the Vegas franchise has been a success story since the city was awarded a franchise two years ago, a place where professional sports was loath to touch because of the state’s lax sports wagering laws. They built an opulent arena, the T-Mobile Arena, immediately adjacent to the famed Las Vegas Strip and amongst an area undergoing white hot development.

Then not knowing where their fan base would come from… would it be home grown locals dying to support their first professional team? Or would it be a visiting fan base choosing Las Vegas as the ideal destination for a sports rod trip? Turns out that the gate attendance is a combination of both.

The team is playing to 103% of capacity, and a ticket to the Golden Knights is one of the most coveted in this town that is chock full of entertainment diversions. Team officials indicate that about 90% of season ticket ownership is locally based, and on any given night the Knights get about 2000 fans from the visiting team, fueled largely via secondary market ticket sales.

With the packed houses, and the give and take between hone and visiting fans at every constest, the building has a playoff charged atmosphere at just about every game, and that is spurring on the home team even further. They have a 19-2-2 league best record on home ice, which is exciting Las Vegas fans even further.

Some have speculated as well about a mysterious malady called the “Vegas Flu”. Earlier this season noted national Canadian journalist Elliotte Friedman tweeted about the notion that players from visiting teams get distracted by the buzz and vibe of Las Vegas and that may further enhance the home team advantage for the Golden Knights.

The idea was quickly denounced by Don Logan, a team executive with the Las Vegas 51s AAA baseball team, who has a great deal of experience in sports marketing in the city. “I’ve been around hockey enough to know that they’re very regimented in their approach, a hockey team is. They practice at specific times. They take a nap before they play games. They eat together as a team. They do their film work as a team,” Logan says. “It’s a very regimented sport in that, so to think that the plane shows up and bus drops the guys off at the hotel and they all just go crazy, I don’t believe that.

“You’re a major league athlete. You can’t perform to the best of your ability if you haven’t gotten enough sleep or if you haven’t eaten properly.”

The Golden Knights have shuttled through five different goaltenders this season, with star netminder Marc-Andre Fleury now becoming the go to guy. The players who have become their standouts were not exactly household names. Leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault toiled in the AHL for five seasons. William Karlsson, a Columbus castoff, has 27 goals. Former Predators forward James Neal, also left unprotected, has tallied 22 goals.

The Buffalo Sabres can only shake their heads in awe and disbelief in watching this sort of scoring production from a team that was not expectant to even be relevant, yet compete, in a league where getting to even a playoff wild card slot could be a challenge. Yet here is Buffalo, mired dead last in scoring and a power play that is horrific to watch.

All this is just increasing demand and interest amongst bidders and potential ownership groups for what is anticipated to be the next expansion team and the league’s 32nd franchise. Golden Knights majority owner Bill Foley took a gamble on Las Vegas and won. His team is a marketing juggernaut, a profit and loss success story, and the oddsmakers next door at the New York New York Casino now have his team pegged at 12-1 to win the Stanley Cup, a ranking that has risen precipitously since the season started.

Meanwhile in Buffalo… the rot from the losing culture of the tank years continue. Oceans of $6 tickets on secondary sales sites going unsold and unclaimed. The team did turn out a successful promotion last Saturday, a sellout for a “Kids Day”. The team responded with a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Dallas Stars and boos cascaded from the stands for much of the third period for fans who elected to stick out the horror show.

Gee, wonder how many of those youngsters will be counted amongst the franchise’s most supportive fans and season ticket holders a couple decades from now?