Golden Knights’ success was unexpected by many, but not all have been shocked

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Goaltender (and later coach) Clint Malarchuk was one of the early fan favorites in Las Vegas.

When the NHL announced in 2016 it would grant an expansion franchise to Las Vegas, many were skeptical. If you’ve been at any Golden Knights games recently at T-Mobile Arena, undoubtedly you’ve seen some of the quotes questioning the NHL’s wisdom in placing yet another team in the desert.

Las Vegas is a tricky sports market, and it has been for years. Minor league sports leagues and owners saw the city’s growth curve and the wealth in town and thought it perfect for a franchise.

One by one, though, they failed, some before they’d finished a season. Some of them were hare-brained ideas from the start — Anyone remember that the CFL had a team in Las Vegas? — and others started well and then faded.

The International Hockey League’s Las Vegas Thunder were one of those. The league expanded to Las Vegas in 1993, and the Thunder was an almost instant success. The team averaged 8,018 fans in the first season at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus and won the regular season championship.

It played a great band of hockey with lots of scoring, plenty of fights and a slew of interesting characters. Week-night attendance was shaky, but the team would draw 10,000 or more frequently on weekends.

In its six years, the Thunder had numerous NHL players who were holding out from their teams come to play. Alexei Yashin, Curtis Joseph, Petr Nedved and Daniel Briere were chief among them. Wes McCauley, now arguably the NHL’s premier referee, signed with Las Vegas and attended its training camp. He was sent to its ECHL affiliate in Knoxville, but did manage to make it to Las Vegas ever so briefly.

The franchise went to no ends to sell tickets. On ‘Bikini Night,’ nearly every stripper in Las Vegas showed up. It gave a horse to its beloved “Cowboy Goalie,” Clint Malarchuk, in a ceremony before one game.

In a road game against the Phoenix Roadrunners, coaches Bob Strumm and Chris McSorley were so irate by the officiating that they declined a penalty called on the Roadrunners and had their players simply stand by the boards instead of getting involved in the play.

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The late Sasha Lakovic.

Brawls were commonplace, as the Thunder always had its share of tough guys. None, of course, could snap the way that the late Sasha Lakovic could. He played 49 games with the Thunder in the 1995-96 season and 10 more in 1996-97. In those 59 games, Lakovic had one goal, two assists and 497 penalty minutes.

The Thunder were nothing if not entertaining. But as an independent IHL team, it bore the cost of all player contracts, as well as for its coaching staff. And eventually, owners Hank and Ken Stickney had to succumb, as the financial losses became far more than they could take.

The franchise folded following the 1998-99 season and the league went out of existence a few years after that.

But the Thunder’s brief time in Las Vegas was an indication that hockey could work here. I was skeptical when Golden Knights owner Bill Foley in 2015 kicked off a ticket drive in an effort to land an expansion team.

I knew there was a hard-core group of fans who would support an NHL team, if Las Vegas got an arena and a franchise. But I worried about the  level of support, particularly if the team struggled or didn’t play an exciting brand of hockey.

Strumm, the Thunder’s general manager, had a sharp hockey mind and went on to work as a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets after the Thunder folded. He attended Foley’s 2015 news conference and told me in an interview he believed with support from local businesses, the franchise that would become the Golden Knights could work here.

I wrote about it for Yahoo Sports on Feb. 10, 2015, and Strumm’s words look prescient today.

This is major league sports we’re talking about and so I’m not sure that all of those other failures are applicable here. Professional sports today, no matter what league, is corporate entertainment. The corporations [buy] the tickets and the suites and they support the various teams in the various leagues. That’s the ticket for Las Vegas.

With the Thunder, we had a pretty good run for three years and then it tapered off. But we couldn’t get the support of the corporations. There was only one casino that supported us, and that was Caesars. The other thing is that the IHL was like Triple-A baseball and this is the big leagues. I think Vegas is a big-league city.

Foley made a point that day to note the team wasn’t looking to fill its arena with fans of the visiting team. He wanted to build a Las Vegas fan base. Asked if a team could thrive without local fan support, he answered unequivocally.

No. That’s why this ticket drive is all about getting deposits from local residents, not from casinos, not from people from out of town. Our ticket drive is based on a 35-mile radius from downtown Las Vegas. That’s what we want, and that’s what we’re getting.

Who knew what was to come at that point. But the Golden Knights have become the talk of pro sports, and are only days away from opening the Stanley Cup Finals at home against the Washington Capitals.

The fan support has been passionate and consistent. Fans even fill the team’s practice facility.

Not a lot of people saw it coming. There were some, though, who saw the success of the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder and, to a lesser degree, the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers a few years later, and thought it showed that the NHL could work in Las Vegas.

The NHL works in Las Vegas, all right. The Golden Knights are one of the NHL’s marquee franchises, and it figures to be a destination for high-end free agents.

Few will remember, but it got its start a quarter century ago on the UNLV campus. Jim Fossum, then the columnist and sports editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, wrote, “Paint the town teal,” after the Thunder’s successful opening night, a nod to what he saw as the franchise’s bright future.

So while the NHL success here was unexpected, not everyone in Las Vegas has been completely blind-sided by it.

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2 comments

  • Great article! Went to many Thunder games, and am a rabid Knights fan.

    • Very cool … I never missed a Thunder home game (covered all of them) and I went to quite a few road games. And of course I have season tickets for VGK. We share a love of hockey, Mark.

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