Vegas counting on NHL to broaden Sin City identity

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas is a city largely built on the fat wallets and tall tales of tourists and sightseers coming through town in durations that can be quantified in hours and minutes rather than months and years.

Nothing in the Vegas they know is real. It's a mirage in the middle of the desert where there are no clocks and where logic and decorum take a backseat to lunacy and debauchery. This is the foundation that "Sin City" was built on, with tourism ads that have famously boasted "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

This, however, is not the foundation that will make Las Vegas a successful professional sports town. No one coming through Las Vegas for a bachelor or bachelorette party, or watching "The Hangover" or "Ocean's Eleven," knows that Vegas -- but they will.

On Wednesday the NHL announced it had awarded an expansion franchise to Las Vegas, the city's first major professional sport team. While the team will not play a game until the start of the 2017-18 NHL season, it was a landmark day for the city and arguably the biggest sports moment for a city that has always dreamed of having a pro sports team of its own.

While the world knows Vegas for "The Strip," if the NHL is to succeed in Las Vegas, it will be because the residents of Clark County -- not the tourists -- have embraced the team. These are the people who don't stay at Caesars Palace, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay or the Flamingo but the people who live in Summerlin, Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City.

"This is a really close-knit community with over 2 million people living in southern Nevada," Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said. "Most people don't get more than three blocks east or west of Las Vegas Boulevard but there's a lot of homes and schools and churches and shopping centers that are here. But what we were missing were the roots. The vast majority of people who live here came from somewhere else but now the next generation, my children, have a home team that they never had before. It will give a real sense of pride and belonging to the community."

The vision for an NHL team in Las Vegas came from Bill Foley, who is the principal owner of the NHL's newest team and was the former head of Fidelity National Financial. The idea first came to him in 2013 when he found out MGM and AEG were building an arena just off The Strip. Soon after, he met with some NHL officials at Pebble Beach and got the ball rolling on his idea to bring an NHL team to Las Vegas. Foley, however, didn't just envision bringing professional hockey to the city; he wanted to grow a new generation of fans, and possibly players, from the community he will depend on to make the team successful.

"We have different hockey leagues here ... the only thing Las Vegas doesn't have is enough sheets of ice but we want to change that," Foley said. "We're going to build a practice facility with two sheets of ice that's going to be open to the public. We're going to create a strong youth hockey program out of that because that's the way you build your fan base over years and years."

After officially being awarded an expansion franchise Wednesday, Foley smiled as he told stories of how the community has already supported the team. He recalled a cab driver bragging about the new T-Mobile Arena and how it would house the city's new hockey team, not knowing he was talking to the man behind the franchise. He also recalled sitting at Shake Shack in Summerlin with his wife, enjoying a hamburger, when an 11-year-old boy named Connor came up to him, shook his hand and said, "Mr. Foley, I just want you to know, I'm really looking forward to you bringing hockey here."

"There is so much local support for this team and there's so much excitement," Foley said. "What hockey will do for Las Vegas, it will give it an identity unto itself as opposed to The Strip because the local residents aren't about The Strip. They're about going to good restaurants and going to local bars and playing golf and hiking at Red Rock. But this will give Las Vegas an identity it has never had."

Foley has no doubt that Las Vegas will embrace its first major professional sports franchise and it will become a household name around the city, but he also wants visitors from around the world to embrace the team as well. Over 42 million people visit Las Vegas annually and Foley wants them to come to games at the T-Mobile Arena, situated behind the New York-New York Hotel & Casino on The Strip, and buy team merchandise at gift shops in and around the hotels and casinos.

"My goal is to make this an international brand," Foley said. "So when people come from China, Europe and all over the world, they leave wearing our jersey and our hats. I want this to be an international brand and really help grow the NHL globally."

But unlike talk of Vegas getting an NFL team, where there would be just eight regular-season games mostly on Sundays that could easily be filled by visitors, Las Vegas' NHL team will play 41 home games, mostly on weekday nights, that will depend largely on local support. The NHL is confident that the local support is there and will be there in the long run.

"There's a community here," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The Foley group had done a lot of research and after the research the season-ticket drive demonstrated what the research showed. We did a lot of homework and this was a [case of] we're here because we think it's the right time and the right circumstance and we're happy to be here."

Foley said the team already has 14,000 season-ticket deposits for an arena that will seat 17,500 for games, and expects most of the games to be sellouts when the team begins play.

"This is going to be gigantic," Foley said. "If you go out to Summerlin or Henderson and talk about hockey, people know. They're excited. This is a big deal for Las Vegas."