Vegas, gold standard for first-year success, visits Red Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who recently acquired Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar, above, sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division. “We wanted to be good,” said GM George McPhee.

Detroit — Expansion teams can expect to land in leagues as “wannabes.”

They want to be good.

Some get there quickly, and nurture financial success in their markets.

Others take longer; some, much longer.

In the NHL, expansion teams have sometimes failed in their original markets. Since 1967, franchises in Oakland, Kansas City and two in Atlanta relocated, searching for success, and no expansion team compiled a winning record in its first season.

Then came Vegas.

Never has any major professional sports league in North America hit a jackpot, like the NHL with the Golden Knights, who play the Red Wings Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena.

Not only have the Knights broken a decades-long trend of hoping for modest, early success, they are among the best teams in the NHL.

They sell out T-Mobile Arena. The team and league say television ratings also exceed expectations.

“I think one of the most important things was the work the board (NHL Board of Governors) was able to do heading in, to make sure we had a viable market,” Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL, told The Detroit News.

“We went in expecting some success. But the success that it has been really exceeds our wildest expectations.

“You’d like to use it to cast the die,” Daly said. “But, I’m not sure there really is any explanation for the kind of success it has been, to tell you the truth.

“It is the result of a lot of things going well, all coming together.”

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The deep preparation required to assure that professional sports could be brought to a hub for gambling, and that hockey, no less, could find a home in a desert city with a transient, highly mobile population, provided a powerful launching pad.

The NHL organized thoroughly, and got it right.

Establishing league rules to provide a new team with a year to prepare deals with other franchises gave the management in Vegas more power and longer lead time than other recent expansion efforts.

“Allowing this team to make some transactions earlier on,” Daly said, “I think that really got this general manager and his team involved with all the other general managers and their teams.

“Not that (GM) George McPhee and his people didn’t do a great job, but that helped.”

The NHL also wanted to make more quality players available.

Previously in the NHL Expansion Draft, franchises could protect 15 players.

This time, the league allowed Vegas to build a roster, as the only expansion team in the process, with the 30 other teams protecting only 11 players.

“We wanted to be good,” McPhee told The News. “We wanted to give the market a chance.

“I think having the full year to prepare was necessary, and we needed every bit of that year because it was an extraordinary amount of work to start with absolutely nothing.”

McPhee’s performance in the draft drew acclaim across the NHL, some of it grudging.

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“It took a while to get up and running, but we worked very hard at it,” said McPhee, a former general manager of the Capitals, who played 115 games with the Rangers and Devils. “We were exceptionally well-organized. We were very progressive.”

The result is a roster performing on par with the best NHL teams, and better than many others, through the first three-fourths of the season.

The Golden Knights are a team that already plays with skill and plenty of the pace required to win in the league, given the current style of play.

There is some concern that their weakness at the center position — which made the acquisition of the Red Wings Tomas Tatar, who plays forward on a wing, a bit of a surprise — will hamper them amid the tighter, more exacting play of the playoffs.

But, they sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division.

Coach Gerard Gallant, a former Red Wings player, and the Knights began their on-ice life in the wake of the city’s horrific mass shooting.

After entering the NHL simultaneously in 2000, the Wild and Blue Jackets have combined for only one division title. The two franchises won a total of two playoff series in their first 13 years.

The Predators entered the league in 1998, and are still seeking their first division title. They did not make the playoffs until their sixth season.

The Thrashers entered the NHL in 1999, have never won their division and made it to the playoffs once before moving to Winnipeg.

Neither the Predators or the Thrashers won a playoff series in their first 11 seasons.

Las Vegas and Nevada officials had hoped a professional sports team would provide alternative entertainment, and some business, for the Las Vegas Strip, the district of casinos and hotels along a 4.5-mile stretch of mostly neon illumination on South Las Vegas Boulevard.

“I think people were hungry to have an identity away from the Vegas Strip,” said Dave Goucher, the TV play-by-play announcer for the Golden Knights.

Around town, “Vegas born” billboards and T-shirts have appeared, describing the NHL expansion, in town.

“I think it’s the best building in the league,” he said. “They are filled to capacity every night, standing room only.”

When they sold 5,000 season tickets in the first two days of their season ticket drive in February 2015, the NHL and the Golden Knights perceived a strong market.

Then, 19 months later, they had to cap season-tickets at 16,000 so that game-day tickets would still be available.

Other franchises say their fans have latched on to Las Vegas as an attractive warm-weather destination for road trips.

Red Wings officials said a volume of requests for tickets for the Wings game against the Golden Knights Oct. 13 went unfulfilled because no tickets were available.

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Now, the league is die casting what it can of the most successful expansion process in the history of the four major sports leagues in North America.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters Wednesday that the expansion draft process will proceed much the same for Seattle, which has been announced as the 32nd team in the league.

What local officials, the NHL and the franchise did not plan is the need for a hockey team to bind psychological wounds.

No one would ever want a repetition of another early element of the success of the Golden Knights: The largest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history at the Mandalay Bay hotel, in which 58 were killed and 851 hurt.

The Golden Knights opened their season at home 10 days after the shootings, at a time when the community still needed to mourn.

“This terrible event has kind of put a damper on opening night,” said Bill Foley, the Golden Knights owner, according to the Associated Press. “We’re going to be very respectful and pay tribute to the first responders and victims.

“That’s kind of our job.”

As was the case with the Red Sox, after the Boston Marathon bombing, a sports team lifted a metropolis.

“That plays into it, and there’s no way to get around it, the horrific shootings of Oct. 1,” said Goucher, who from 2000-17 called play-by-play on radio for the Bruins.

“It was right before the start of the season. It was leading right into the first week.

“Even though it was just a horrendous reason, I think the team kind of tried to help as much as they could and maybe help folks, for just a couple of hours a day, by offering something else,” he said.

“And the community really wrapped their arms around the team, so I think it was a two-way street.”

After players spoke articulately and with compassion before the puck-drop, Vegas won on opening night.

They took the first six of seven home games, and went 8-1 overall to open the season.



Golden Knights at Red Wings

Faceoff: 7:30 Thursday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit.

TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit, 97.1FM

Notes: The Red Wings keep pressing, despite standing 10 points behind the Blue Jackets in the last wild-card position and, effectively, 11 points out of the playoffs with the tie-breaker… Tomas Tatar and coach Gerard Gallant return to Detroit, with the most successful expansion team in its first season in the history of the major professional sports leagues.