Tourist or local? Vegas' strategy to have the NHL's best home-ice advantage

ByArash Markazi via ESPN logo
Friday, April 13, 2018
ESPN

LAS VEGAS -- Late in the third period of the Vegas Golden Knights' first Stanley Cup playoff game, a message flashed on the video board at T-Mobile Arena asking fans to make noise depending on who they were.

Make noise if you're male ... make noise if you're female. Make noise if you're married ... make noise if you're single.

The roars from the crowd were fairly even for both -- until it got to the last one.

Make noise if you're a tourist ... make noise if you're a local.

There is perhaps no greater distinction for the residents of this city than "tourist or local." After all, no city is as identified by its hotels and tourists as Las Vegas. Think of all the great Las Vegas-centric movies you have ever seen. From "The Hangover" to "Ocean's Eleven," there is a good chance the stars of the film were out-of-towners making bad decisions in Sin City. The sense from those who never venture off The Strip is that locals are simply comprised of card dealers and cocktail waitresses who buy their groceries at Caesars Palace and the Bellagio.

But Las Vegas is a real community with real locals and real families who live real lives far from the bright lights of South Las Vegas Blvd. -- and that was on display during the Golden Knights' first postseason win against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday.

Only two teams won more games at home than Vegas during the regular season, but despite playing in front of sold-out home crowds all season, the stands were often filled with as many (or more) fans from the visiting teams. Weekend games against the likes of Detroit, Boston, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary led to The Strip and surrounding casinos being flooded with jerseys of the opposing team.

That was not the case Wednesday when The Park Las Vegas -- an outdoor area lined with trees, waterfalls and restaurants that sits between the New York-New York and Park MGM hotels -- was crowded with Golden Knights fans walking the pathway that leads directly to T-Mobile Arena. Outside the arena, Toshiba Plaza, a two-acre area in front of T-Mobile Arena, was filled with more Golden Knights fans getting free Golden Knights tattoos, wearing black and gold face paint, taking pictures with Vegas showgirls and dancing to a concert from Grammy-nominated rapper Logic.

This was a local party surprisingly devoid of Los Angeles fans, which was by design. The Golden Knights enrolled all their full-season-ticket holders in a program that prohibits them from reselling their playoff tickets on the secondary market. In exchange for vowing not to resell, the fans will pay less for tickets than fans who opt out. The team is calling the program the "Knights Vow."

"We're a destination city. During the regular season, it was a big part of our event experience. But the Stanley Cup playoffs, that's a different time," Vegas team president Kerry Bubolz told ESPN. "We want to do what we can to support the hockey side of our organization."

The result Wednesday was a crowd of 18,479, the largest in team history, and perhaps the largest collection of local fans the team has had all season at a home game. While the team admits it will make less money with this strategy, it is a small price to pay for developing what could become one of the best home-ice advantages in the NHL during the postseason.

"I think that's the loudest I've heard this building," said Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. "It was rocking. There was great intensity right from the start. The atmosphere in the building was awesome."

The on-ice pregame show included a battle scene seemingly out "Game of Thrones" as a Golden Knight slayed a King at center ice before Vegas players stormed through an oversized Golden Knights helmet lowered from the rafters as the crowd stood and waved towels. There have been some wild pregame ceremonies in hockey, but this was arguably the craziest.

"It was outstanding. Our fans have been like that all season long," Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. "Coming out of the helmet today, that stuff that the organization does. The fan support that we get is unbelievable. The guys are definitely excited and pumped up. That's what they call this home ice. It was outstanding for us."

Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault added, "They keep impressing us. It was just so fun playing in front of them. Every time Los Angeles crowd was trying to get loud, they were getting on their feet and going over them."

It is fitting that the first postseason series for Vegas is against Los Angeles, considering the Kings helped bring the NHL to the city. The Kings have been playing preseason hockey games in Las Vegas since 1991, and Anschutz Entertainment Group, the company that owns the Kings, had been trying to build an arena in Las Vegas, which AEG always believed could house an NHL team, for the past decade. AEG eventually teamed with MGM Resorts International to build T-Mobile Arena, and the Kings actually played the first hockey game at the arena in 2016 and were the first team to test out the home locker room.

"The Kings had a lot to do with developing interest in hockey in Las Vegas," Golden Knights majority owner Bill Foley said. "They've been playing preseason games here for years."

It would not have been surprising if the Kings remained the most popular hockey team in Vegas during the Golden Knights' first few lean seasons, as most predicted the Knights would struggle initially. But in the aftermath of the mass shooting on Oct. 1, an unbreakable bond was formed between this city and this team that only strengthened by the Knights' historic success on the ice, as they won the Pacific Division and finished with the fifth-best record in the league. Golden Knights players and coaches adopted this city, and fans from North Las Vegas, Summerlin, Boulder City, Henderson and all over Clark County adopted them as one of their own, wearing shirts with the hashtag #VegasBorn and #VegasStrong. This was more than just pride for an expansion team; this was pride for a city.

"The bond that developed so intensely and so quickly between the team and the city of Las Vegas, I don't think anybody could have anticipated," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We knew it would be successful, but that it happened so fast, maybe it was in the face of the tragedy and the team trying to help heal and unify. Maybe it's the fact that Las Vegas is proud that this franchise has been born here and that its roots will always be here from the beginning."

Whatever it is, it has made for an unforgettable first season that might not end anytime soon if Vegas' first Stanley Cup playoff game is any indication of things to come.

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