Bill Foley has Stanley Cup dreams

It's not so much a plan as a dream.

Bill Foley's dream plan, then, is to be hoisting a Stanley Cup within eight years of seeing the first puck dropped on National Hockey League ice on Las Vegas' famous Strip.

"I don't care what it takes," the businessman told ESPN.com this week.

What NHL owner doesn't have the same kind of dreams? Shouldn't they all?

But if the line between dreams and plans are bridged by execution, then first things first for the wealthy mortgage financier turned winery tycoon: like actually being granted an expansion team by a league that has not expanded its roster since 2000.

That is no small piece of business, given that Las Vegas has long pined for a major league sports franchise to come to town; pinings that have until now been largely ignored.

And no small piece of business, given the relative uncertainty over whether the marketplace can and will consistently fill a 20,000-seat building with fans 41 times a season.

"We've done a lot of work and tried to move this into a position where everyone knows it's real," Foley said.

If the Stanley Cup ceremony and subsequent parade down the Strip is a speck on some distant hockey horizon, what is not so distant are the immediate plans to determine whether this marketplace is sufficiently interested in having the NHL come to town to take the next step.

Foley will meet with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly next week to discuss plans to engage in a trial season-ticket drive, a trial the league endorsed and announced at its annual December meetings in Florida at the beginning of the week.

Foley's plan is two-pronged, he told ESPN.com. First, he and his Las Vegas-based partners, the Maloof family -- former owners of the Palms Casino and former owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings -- will put out a call for individuals and businesses to express their formal interest in supporting an NHL team.

Foley hopes that response, which would not require a monetary commitment, will be measured in the tens of thousands.

Then, during the second phase, Foley and his group will ask for a commitment from those people/businesses in terms of some form of down payments or deposits on season tickets.

Foley is hopeful that if the NHL agrees to this two-part plan, then the league would be able to provide more clarity on the possibilities of an expansion team in Las Vegas, assuming the initial numbers are positive.

"We've got to convince people that if we do things correctly and properly and we satisfy the NHL, that there is a high potential we'll get a franchise," Foley said.

That's assuming, of course, that the NHL thinks this initial plan of attack is a good one, the affable Foley said.

"They may say my ideas aren't any good, and we'll have to modify that," he said.

Foley, often described in business publications as a billionaire, grew up in Texas and his family historically were ranchers. But he did spend time as a child in Ottawa, where his father, a member of the U.S. Air Force, was stationed.

And yes, he did skate outdoors and play some shinny hockey.

"I'm all over hockey," Foley said.

Foley said he was approached by the Maloofs about investing in an NHL team in Las Vegas, and he said plans have been ongoing over the past 15 months.

The idea of a ticket drive came up during a discussion with commissioner Gary Bettman a little more than a month ago, Foley said.

"We've made good progress but the reality is that Las Vegas is an unproven market," he said.

That's about to change. The drive will go a long way toward discovering the depth of interest in the community. A website has also been set up to gauge interest in bringing a team to Vegas.

Assuming there is the kind of interest Foley and the Maloof family believe there is, the drive should help alleviate what is understandable skepticism on the part of the NHL board of governors, the group that will ultimately direct Bettman on the issue of expansion.

Most observers agree that the key to success for an NHL team is to have strong local support and a strong connection with the community from grassroots hockey on up, as opposed to simply hoping enough tourists spilling out of the casinos will carry the day in terms of attendance, even if 40 million visitors annually make the trek to the Las Vegas area.

Foley said they're not interested in having a team that simply attracts fans who are given tickets by casinos with suites in the Las Vegas Arena, which is currently under construction and scheduled to open in May 2016. Neither is the league, he noted.

"I don't want to see everyone in the stands with a Canucks jersey on," Foley said with a laugh. "I'm not trying to promote the Red Wings."

Assuming the NHL is agreeable to the ticket-drive plan set out by Foley -- or even if there were to be modifications to the plan -- Foley hopes that by early in the new year the plan will be put into action and that the two prongs could be launched and completed in 90 to 120 days. He would like for fans to be able to view the arena seating chart and actually choose the exact seat in which they'd like to sit when it comes to down payment time.

Currently, that seating chart isn't quite completed yet by the arena developers. That process should be completed in less than a month.

While the ticket drive looms large, there has also been significant work done behind the scenes on other elements of the expansion puzzle. There is a lease agreement that is nearing completion with the builders of the $350 million Las Vegas Arena: MGM Resorts International and AEG, owners of the Los Angeles Kings.

"We've got that fairly well put to bed," Foley said.

Politicians across the state are on board for this project, Foley said.

"And we know the business community is going to be completely enthusiastic about this," Foley added, noting that they have had meetings not just with MGM officials -- whose properties represent 41,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas -- but other top-end casino/resort officials about their plan.

"We know that we're going to get great casino support," Foley added, "but I want the guy that lives in Henderson, I want him to be there."

Soon the fruits of that labor and, more to the point the extent of the interest of that guy in Henderson and elsewhere in the area, will be revealed.

Already, there is growing anticipation at how this will all play out.

"I think it is a smart move by the league," one source familiar with the Foley-Maloof group's plan told ESPN.com. "If the support is there, then the city is ready. If not, then maybe it's not ready."

A separate source familiar with the arena project and the ownership bid agreed that the ticket campaign will provide the community a chance to reinforce the belief that Las Vegas could support major league sports.

"We think that this season-ticket campaign is a great idea that will give the community the opportunity to demonstrate their support and commitment to a potential team," the source said.

Former NHLer Jeff Sharples, a longtime Vegas resident who is now a pilot, believes the makeup of the ownership group gives the project a chance to succeed.

"The Maloofs have excelled at promoting in the Las Vegas market, so they know how to do an event the right way and have pro team experience," Sharples said. "Bill Foley alongside them with his reputation, and his success as a businessman, gives hockey a chance to make it in a non-traditional market."

Would Bettman, or Foley for that matter, embark on this road if he didn't have a sense that the response would be good?


Maybe the marketplace is such an unknown quantity that this ticket drive truly is about to reveal the hitherto unknown. The league has opened a door, Foley noted.

Soon, they're going to find out if they'll be allowed to go through that door.

A graduate of West Point, Foley came to prominence in the mortgage insurance business, ultimately building a Fortune 500 company, Fidelity National Financial Inc., which he still presides over as chairman.

But after stepping away from the day-to-day operations of that business Foley, an avid golfer and wine enthusiast, has taken the wine industry by storm, aggressively buying up millions of dollars of distressed vineyards and wineries in California and other locales, including New Zealand.

Among the labels now under his care is one that might sound familiar: Wayne Gretzky Estates. Foley and Gretzky have known each other for a few years.

"He's a wonderful man," Gretzky told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun on Wednesday night. "He would be a great owner if he gets a team. He loves hockey and he loves sports. He would be unreal."

Gretzky said they've been together in the wine business for four years and that he's known Foley for six years.

"He's a good man," Gretzky said. "It would be good for hockey if he gets the team. He loves the game."

Certainly other business associates believe that the NHL couldn't have asked for a better point man for an expansion team than Foley.

Mario Zepponi is the head of Zepponi & Company, a California-based company that deals in mergers and acquisitions in the wine industry. Foley has been involved in four or five deals with the company over the past decade, and what strikes Mario Zepponi is Foley's vision.

"He is probably one of the sharpest if not the sharpest of business people that I've come across," Zepponi told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "He grasps concepts very quickly. He gets up to speed very quickly."

And Foley's small but experienced executive team is one of the best Zepponi has seen in terms of performing due diligence and doing research. Making moves that might not on their surface make sense but which work out two or three steps down the road is something Foley has shown he has a knack for, Zepponi said.

"It's a gift. And he definitely has that gift," Zepponi added.

Tom Hagerty is a Boston-based private equity manager who sits on the boards of a number of companies that Foley chairs and has also invested on four or five occasions with Foley's companies over the years, with investments topping $1 billion.

A native of Chicago who has over the years learned to love the Bruins, Hagerty speaks in terms of Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull when it comes to Foley's business acumen.

"I think Bill is one of those very rare characters. He's just going to be good at everything he does," Hagerty told ESPN.com. "He's an enormously talented businessman. He's a leader."

If the NHL has worries about having a team in Vegas with the gambling and other elements that might give them pause, Foley should put league officials at ease, Hagerty said.

"They couldn't ask for a better guy," he said. "I just think the world of the guy. It's just that simple.

"He's just a star. He's a flat-out star."

A father of four grown children, Foley splits his time between Northern California's wine country, Jacksonville, Florida, and Montana. But that would change if the NHL project is successful.

Foley said his wife has already engaged a realtor in Las Vegas with an eye toward buying a house there.

And he joked that considering his four children, he figures he's good for at least six season-ticket purchases.