When the NHL's 31st franchise opens its inaugural season in 2017-18, bringing in a new era for hockey in Las Vegas, Bob Strumm will be there. And there won't be a greater authority in the building that night when it comes to Las Vegas hockey.
As the general manager of the Las Vegas Thunder of the now-defunct International Hockey League, Strumm oversaw what was, until the NHL's expansion announcement on June 22, hockey's golden age in Sin City. For six seasons during the 1990s, the Thunder blended star power with distinctive Las Vegas flair. And as with the city itself, anything could -- and often did -- happen.
"We finished first in our first year in the IHL and the third year we finished first overall," said Strumm, who was the Columbus Blue Jackets' director of pro scouting for 12 years. "We didn't win a championship but we had some great teams and great players and great personalities."
The team was the brainchild of the father-son duo of Hank and Ken Stickney, who made their bones owning several successful minor-league baseball teams. Selling Vegas to hockey players was easy, but building the franchise wasn't, especially considering Nevada had just a single ice sheet when the Stickneys were awarded their IHL franchise. Located at the Santa Fe Casino, that ice served as a practice facility, offering players free breakfast and quality slot machine time.
After UNLV's Thomas and Mack Center was retrofitted to accommodate hockey, the Thunder were a Vegas favorite.
"They treated us like we were [players in the] NHL," said goaltender Clint Malarchuck, who played for the Thunder from 1993-1997. "I was up on a billboard in lights at the Showboat Casino. On weekends we'd get 10,000-12,000 fans."
That fan turnout provided a great home-ice advantage. But there was also the added value of playing in a city with countless late-night distractions.
"As a local team, you hope the visiting team does go out and have some fun," said defenseman Kerry Toporowski, a fourth-round draft pick in 1991 of the San Jose Sharks who played for the Thunder for parts of the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. "I definitely remember guys saying, 'Hey, take it easy on me tonight. It was a rough one last night.'"
A veteran of 338 NHL games, Malarchuk was among the Thunder's first star players before assuming coaching and front-office roles with the franchise. But he wasn't the only name player drawn to Las Vegas. Several established NHLers joined the Thunder as full-time players, including Sergei Zholtok, Randy Burridge, Pokey Reddick, Jim Kyte, Paul Dipietro and Greg Hawgood. The Thunder even had a Gretzky -- Brent Gretzky, Wayne's younger brother who was a third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and played a season for the Thunder.
When NHL stars were embroiled in a bitter holdout, it didn't take long to convince them to join an independent pro team in Vegas. During their respective contract squabbles, for at least a few weeks, Alexei Yashin, Curtis Joseph, Petr Nedved and Pavol Demitra all brought star power to the team. Even trailblazing women's goaltender Manon Rheaume played two games for the Thunder.
"It seemed like there was always a big name," Malarchuk said. "A lot of it was the way we were treated. Bob Strumm was the mastermind behind getting big names."
Strumm's shrewdest move might have been signing top prospects from Eastern Europe. Just a few years after the Berlin Wall fell, Strumm signed Czech star Radek Bonk. Despite being only 17 and unfamiliar with Western culture, Bonk became an instant star before being taken third overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 1994 NHL draft.
"Vegas is a good spot for scouts to come and watch games," Strumm said. "And we had lots of scouts at the games. It certainly brought a lot of attention to our team. And the kid handled it terrifically. He played well."
For all that star power, the real attraction might have been Vegas itself. When it came to marketing the team, there was no shortage of local color in the arena.
"We said yes a lot, unless it was illegal," Ken Stickney said. "We pushed the edge on just about everything. The focus was just on having a good time. We wanted to win, we wanted to lead the league in scoring and we wanted to lead the league in penalty minutes every year."
Accompanied by lasers, smoke and the sound of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," the Thunder entered the ice through a giant slot machine. A marching band often paraded across the ice during breaks in play and groups such as the Village People performed during intermission. A former semi-pro player who had adopted a new Vegas career as a celebrity impressionist occasionally sang the national anthem ... as Neil Diamond.
When Malarchuk had his number retired, the team brought a horse onto the ice as a gift for the lifelong ranch hand.
Naturally, the team partnered with several local businesses, including a couple of prominent gentlemen's clubs, which often resulted in dancers from these establishments attending games. When the women were shown on the Thomas and Mack scoreboard, the capacity crowd would go wild. Except for the time when one dancer's attempt to execute a sultry maneuver resulted in her throwing out her back and being taken out of the arena on a stretcher.
"Probably the only time I went down to ice level, other than to argue with the referees, was to watch the bikini contest," Strumm said. "I can't say any more than that."
With the Thunder contending with a tricky arena lease and other IHL teams joining the American Hockey League, the party ended in 1999. (The IHL folded two years later.) But not everyone left town.
Malarchuk still lives in Northern Nevada while Reddick has spent years developing hockey around Las Vegas. Burridge and Strumm still live there and two former players, Rod Buskas and Jeff Sharples, got pilot licenses and gave tours of the neighboring Grand Canyon before becoming commercial airline pilots. Darcy Loewen and Ken Quinney work as firefighters in the area.
"There have been times we've ended up on the same calls. It's funny," Loewen said. "You just kind of bump elbows and give each other a little wink, a little smirk and carry on about your business."
Led by Strumm and some of his former players, there should be a healthy Thunder contingent in attendance when the NHL comes to Vegas in 2017. They'll no doubt be thinking about how they were the city's original hockey stars.