LAS VEGAS, NEVADA- A city where you can cook an omelet (using only the sun) on its desert sand nine months out of a year has suddenly become a mecca, a bucket-list destination, for hockey fanatics. An ice cube would not stand a chance outside, but the ice inside City National Arena and T-Mobile Arena is carefully manicured, awaiting the next big win for the hottest team, not just in the National Hockey League, but in all of professional sports: the Vegas Golden Knights.
When comparing the top professional expansion teams, by league, in their inaugural seasons, the Golden Knights are the best, and it is not even close. Their winning percentage is over 23% better than the ’95 Carolina Panthers, who have the highest winning percentage of all professional expansion teams (prior to the VGK). I would be remiss if I did not mention that, according to Forbes.com, after opening the season at 150/1, the “Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning are 23/4 co-favorites [to win the Stanley Cup]”. How, on Earth, has a brand-new team, in a city virtually devoid of hockey, muscled its way into first place, not just in the NHL, but in record books? I went directly to the source, the players, to get an answer!
THE EXPLANATION BEHIND BEING SO GOOD
Expansion Draft (noun): This happens when a new team enters the league. Basically, all teams have the opportunity to ‘protect’ a certain amount of players (quantities of players at each position determined, in this case, by the NHL). Those players that are left unprotected are eligible to be scooped up by the brand-new expansion team. In June 2017, the expansion team (the Golden Knights) was given 3 days to fill its roster with draft-eligible players.
First and foremost, Alex Tuch (Right Wing) by way of the Minnesota Wild, told me: “I think that everyone playing with a little chip on their shoulder, because we’re all coming from different teams, helps us too.” Players can internalize being left up-for-grabs as being ‘unwanted’ and can use that as a motivating factor to excel. “A lot of guys have performed better than people expected”, said Tuch. “[Therefore], I think, as a team, we’ve performed better than people have expected.” It seems as though the members of the front office of the Golden Knights did their homework in selecting the correct personnel for the team. 21-year-old Tuch confirmed that, saying: “It starts with our coaching staff, they’ve been unbelievable. We have a great coaching staff and our veteran core has been really good”.
I imagine the Front Office members sitting around a SmartBoard displaying statistics, wearing white lab coats, pouring beakers filled with different colored liquids (representing each individual player) into a large beaker (representing the team), perfecting the mixture until it is precisely the correct color. Okay, maybe the Golden Knights’ front office is not filled with mad scientists, but they definitely were able to nail the chemistry of this team. Both Tuch and Luca Sbisa, a defenseman by way of the Vancouver Canucks, mentioned that to me as being a major factor in the team’s historic success.
Tuch said: “I think, honestly, we have really good chemistry on and off the ice. It’s really lead to our success.” After a pensive pause, unable to give a definitive answer, Sbisa told me: “I dont know: it’s chemistry. The guys didn’t really know each other from before. We had no choice but to get to know each other pretty quickly and get along. We built that chemistry pretty quickly. We got tossed into the situation where there were lots of unknowns, we didn’t really know what was going on. Being in the same boat, you can always rely on the other guy asking questions and that’s how we gelled together as a group pretty quickly. It’s a pretty tight-knit group and I think that’s a big part about being successful as a team. Everyone is playing for each other and I think that’s why we’re having success”.
In any sport, at any level, it’s important to build the chemistry with one’s teammates away from the game. Tuch echoed that sentiment, telling me: “It starts off the ice. The guys love hanging out with each other. It’s not like we’re just seeing each other [only] on the road [game trips]. We’re hanging out with each other at home. It’s been a lot of fun, definitely one of the most fun years of my life.”
Sbisa was in lock-step. He said: “Early on in the season, you make that extra effort to go for dinners or have people over for a barbecue just to get to know the players, the families, and everyone involved.” What he concluded with will make any Golden Knights fan proud. Sbisa said: “We’re just a big family”.
‘A big family’ that just keeps on winning. If the season ended today, the Golden Knights would secure a playoff spot as the second seed in the Western Conference. They have the same record as the first-place Nashville Predators, but trail them by 5 points. Again, if the season ended today, the Golden Knights, in their first playoff series, would face the Dallas Stars, a team they defeated 2-of-3 times already this season.
“I think we surprised a lot of people this year. I mean, honestly, when I saw the expansion draft and when I looked at the roster, I thought we were going to have a really good team, right out of the gate”; call him Nostradamus Tuch.
IMPACT ON UNLV AND YOUTH PROGRAMS
Not only have the Golden Knights shattered the glass ceiling for professional sports in Las Vegas, they have only begun to empower youth programs in and around the city and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ hockey department. Tuch agrees: “I think it’ll help them a lot. I think that having a professional sports team in your city really turns the hockey heads and gets people looking at you a little bit more. I think … they’ll have the potential to become a Division I hockey team. That would be unbelievable not only for college hockey, but for the entire sport of hockey, and the city, too.” As far as youth programs, Sbisa is fascinated by the number of kids that come to watch the Golden Knights’ open practices at City National Arena, and compares it to his time in Anaheim: “When I walk in, it’s packed with little kids. They want to pick up hockey at a very young age. They can barely walk and you see them in [the shop] looking at sticks…. So, it’s nice to see that…. I went through that … in Anaheim. Hockey was obviously a bit more developed [because they already had a professional team there]…. It’s a hockey hotbed now. So, with our success and the interest in hockey now, I think very soon, we’re going to see many players coming out of Vegas.”
BLUEPRINT FOR IMMINENT PROFESSIONAL TEAMS
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) December 11, 2017
The Golden Knights, the first professional team in Las Vegas and their wild success have laid the blueprint for the onslaught of professional teams that will, eventually, call Sin City home. The Las Vegas Lights Football Club (Soccer), the Aces (WNBA), and the Raiders (NFL) will have firmly planted their roots in the sand by 2020. Could Las Vegas reach a point of over-saturation? Will fans in a relatively small-market be spread too thin in terms of the money they will be shelling out for apparel, season/single-game tickets, parking, etc.? Tuch responded with a firm “No.” He added: “I think the city is growing every day. It’s big enough were it can hold 5, 6, 7, professional sports teams and they’ll have enough fans for each one. It’ll be really good. Some day, it’ll not only be an entertainment capital, but a sports one as well.”
— Las Vegas Lights FC (@lvlightsfc) February 11, 2018
“It’s going to be really exciting.”
– Owner Mark Davis looks forward to the new opportunities in Las Vegas.
— OAKLAND RAIDERS (@RAIDERS) March 28, 2017
What if the incoming teams, like the Lights, Aces, or Raiders simply are not as good as the Golden Knights have been? Will fans be turned off? Tuch explained: “I don’t think [the teams will] be considered a bust…. Sometimes, teams just don’t form as well as we did. I think the city will stand behind any professional sports team. We’re not going to [say]: ‘They weren’t as good as the Golden Knights were in their first year so, we’re not going to support them.’ I think that if they’re a fan of the sport… there are going to be a lot of fans, no matter what.” Point well taken.
In my opinion, in order for all of them to survive, Las Vegas teams must support each other in the manner for which Boston teams are famous. Tuch is familiar with this culture, as he attended and played for Boston College for two years. “I know what you’re talking about with Boston being a sports town…. That’s the thing: …we were 20 minutes outside of the city, we had an unbelievable fanbase. There are a lot of different teams [there], professional, college, and minor league and everyone had their fanbase. People were fans of all the teams, so it was really good to see that. I think that Vegas has the potential to do the same thing.
The other professional teams are in their infancy, so partnerships have not yet been forged. Tuch is hopeful the Knights strike up a strong partnership with the Raiders, in particular: “maybe we’ll become friends with some of the Raiders guys. I’m pretty excited about that!”
There is no doubt that the teams understand the need for a reciprocal relationship: the Lights’ and Knights’ accounts have already been tweeting at each other!
— Las Vegas Lights FC (@lvlightsfc) December 29, 2017
Sbisa has spent a lot of his time in the community and getting to know the Las Vegas residents. From those visits, he talked with me about what he took away: “In talking with the people that have been living here for a long time, they didn’t know much about hockey, but now they all have that hockey fever.” Sbisa’s advice for the players, coaches, and staff of the Lights, Aces, Raiders, and all future teams is simple. He offers: “Just come in open-minded. The city will welcome you with open arms…. If you work hard, every night, pepole are going to love you. It’s an unbelievable environment to be in, to play in, to live in. It’s a lot of fun. Like I said before, this city welcomed us with open arms. The rink got a reputation really quickly as being the loudest, the best rink in the [NHL]. You can just tell that the [fans] are passionate and you have to enjoy it every day becuase you can’t take it for granted. It is very special. ”
I discussed the Vegas Golden Knights, New York Jets, New York Giants, New York Yankees, and much more with Review Journal’s Ed Graney and producer Clay Baker on “The Press Box” ESPN Las Vegas 1100am/100.9FM. (2/23/18)Click the link above or the ESPN Las Vegas logo to listen!