Halftime Sports

Questions for the Vegas Golden Knights

December 6, 2016

via Wikimedia Commons

On Nov. 22, it was officially announced that the National Hockey League’s new Las Vegas team, scheduled to first take the ice in the fall of 2017, will be known as the Vegas Golden Knights. The team’s name and logo were officially revealed by a group featuring NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, team owner Bill Foley, and team general manager George McPhee. Although NHL fans now have an identity to associate with the league’s 31st team, there are still several outstanding questions about Las Vegas’ future in the NHL.

Why just “Vegas?”

Seriously, what’s with the tough love for the Spanish definite article? Maybe it’s because the NHL has no four-word team names, and Las Vegas doesn’t want to buck convention. But now that it looks like the Army, of all organizations, is taking issue with the name, the decision to drop the “Las” seems a bit short-sighted. “Las Vegas Knights” would stay below the 3-word threshold, and the only party offended would be a minor league team in another country.  

A strange name is accompanied by a decent logo. Considering the many questionable logos that have accompanied past NHL expansion teams (looking at you, 1990s Cubist Coyote), the Golden Knights have a pretty solid visual identity so far. While the helmet itself looks a bit more bronze age than medieval, the use of negative space to make a “V” for Vegas is pretty cool. It’s not the Hartford Whalers (that logo is pretty much untouchable) but it’s legitimately clever.   

What does this mean for sports in Las Vegas?

The Golden Knights, as NHL expansion teams go, are pretty unique. The NHL has never been the first Big 4 league to stake a claim in an American state (Canadian provinces notwithstanding) before now. The Golden Knights are also the first American NHL expansion team to start play as the only game in town, with no other major sports teams based in the same city. (That is, if you count the MLS Columbus Crew as a major team, and if you count the Raleigh-based Carolina Hurricanes as a relocated team, not an expansion team. Details.)

That being said, the Golden Knights may not be alone for long. There’s a growing movement for the Oakland Raiders to move to Sin City in the near future. Between the Golden Knights, (maybe) the Raiders, and local son Bryce Harper, Las Vegas is stepping into the spotlight as a city on the rise in the wide world of sports. Hockey may just be the beginning of a larger phenomenon.

However, for casual observers, there’s a very large elephant in the room amidst all this optimism, namely, the following question:

Hockey in Las Vegas? Seriously?

The statistics deity Nate Silver has personally called Las Vegas a “Terrible Place for a Hockey Team.” Many fans would be inclined to agree with him. The entire city of Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert. The city has already had, and lost, an ECHL team (essentially AA hockey). If there wasn’t enough interest in Sin City to sustain a team from a league that’s two levels below the NHL, it seems like a fool’s errand to think that support will exist for a big-time team. There are many cities that would seem to be better homes for a new team. Quebec City has a brand-new arena and is in Canada. Toronto could easily absorb another team. Even Seattle is in a state that actually gets cold, and Russell Wilson, of all people, wants the NHL there. Plus, the NHL already has a team in the southwestern US, and while the Coyotes look to be staying in Arizona for the long haul, this security has only come after a lengthy bankruptcy saga. On the surface, the NHL’s decision to put a team in the Nevada desert seems like a terrible idea.

All the same, fans of the Golden Knights still have significant cause for optimism. For one, their team will begin play in a brand new arena, which is much nicer than anything the ECHL’s Wranglers ever played in. The novelty of a top-flight sports team may keep the Golden Knights in the black for a few years at least: Initial season ticket sales have been robust.

Furthermore, there are positive externalities to the NHL’s expansion to unconventional markets that are not immediately obvious, but are still vitally important for the future of hockey. Auston Matthews, a hockey prodigy who was drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs this past summer, was first introduced to hockey by going to a Phoenix Coyotes game. Without the NHL’s gamble to ice a team in the southwest, it’s unlikely that a player like Matthews, with Phoenix-area roots and Latino heritage, ever gets into hockey, let alone the NHL. The presence of the NHL in Arizona has led to more and better opportunities for young players to take up the game. While hockey still must deal with prohibitive costs that limit the game’s accessibility, it is undeniable that the presence of an NHL team increases public interest in the game itself, even in unconventional markets. In the long run, lasting development of a hockey culture in Las Vegas may be more important to the NHL than the number of fans in the seats on a given night.

What lies ahead for the Golden Knights?

While it’s certainly fun to speculate about how the Golden Knights affect the future of the game, there are some more concrete questions facing the team in the more immediate future. Vegas will join the NHL’s Pacific Division, which is a no-brainer. Las Vegas is on Pacific time, the Golden Knights would have a natural rivalry with the Arizona Coyotes, and three of the NHL’s four divisions will have eight teams apiece.

An expansion draft, during which the Golden Knights will get to take a player from each of the current 30 NHL teams, will occur over the summer. The Golden Knights may not end up with an exceptional roster after this draft, but the buildup to the draft should be all kinds of fun to follow as NHL teams struggle to figure out which players they’ll make available for Vegas to take.

Crazy as it may sound, an outdoor game in the style of the Winter/Heritage/Centennial Classic/Stadium Series may be in the Golden Knights’ future. Las Vegas was the site of the first outdoor game in NHL history. Admittedly, this was a preseason game plagued by a literal swarm of locusts, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. The Voice thinks that Vegas needs an outdoor game ASAP – after all, if the NHL can host an outdoor game in Los Angeles that includes a KISS concert, what isn’t possible?

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