Energy of NHL coming to Las Vegas is captivating

Bill Foley talked to Gene Principe about the experience of bringing hockey to Las Vegas and how he grew to love hockey at a young age in Canada.

LAS VEGAS – This is going to be cool.

It was impossible not to come away from the NHL’s glitzy expansion announcement – the first of its kind in 19 years – without a positive feeing about what professional hockey is going to look and feel like when Las Vegas joins the league in 2017-18.

What owner Bill Foley has created here is a real energy around his as-yet unnamed team, the first professional sports outfit that will ever call this city home.

With the help of a more generous expansion draft process than has been used in the past, the bar is being set high. Las Vegas intends to put on a show worthy of the world’s entertainment capital.

“We’ll make the playoffs just as fast as we can,” Foley said Wednesday. “We’re going to be dedicated, we’re going to be focused, we’re going to take no prisoners and we expect to be successful early.”

The announcement at the Wynn Encore Resort was the culmination of years of work for Foley. He first sat down with the NHL’s board of governors in December 2013 and was given permission to start taking season-ticket deposits a year after that.

He wound up getting about 14,000 commitments for seats at the brand new T-Mobile Arena – a clear sign that there is enough local interest to support a team.

That helped ease any concerns there might have been among the league’s board of governors. Commissioner Gary Bettman recalls sitting down with a former Las Vegas mayor as far back as 20 years ago and has seen the city and his league come a long way in the meantime.

By the time a final hour-long presentation on the city’s expansion bid wrapped up inside the Chopin ballroom at the Encore on Wednesday morning, it received unanimous support from the existing 30 owners.

There was never a doubt.

With a fabulous new arena just off the Strip and solid ownership – Foley built his fortune as a mortgage financier and winery tycoon – the pillars were in place for the NHL’s 31st team to build the kind of foundation needed for success.

“He’s a very impressive guy,” Bettman said of Foley. “He’s accomplished a lot. Like many of the people who I know that have attended (the U.S. Military Academy at) West Point, they have certain directness, stick-to-it-ness, determination and ability to get things done.”

Next on Foley’s list of priorities?

Building the kind of organization that players long to be part of. He’s been working with Murray Craven over the last year and has picked the former NHLer’s brain on what made late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider so successful.

He intends to replicate it.

“(He says) ‘Ed Snider took care of us players but when you go on the ice you better win,'” said Foley. “That’s our philosophy. When you go on the ice you better win, but everything else don’t worry about it. We’re going to get your kids in the right school, we’re going to make sure that they have activities. We’re going to make sure that you’re in the right neighbourhood, that you’re happy with it, that you have a realtor you’re with, that you have the right banking relationships.

“We’re going to do everything for our players.”

As part of his research in making a pitch for expansion, Foley examined each of the NHL’s markets for livability. By his estimation, this city will immediately join the top three.

“Las Vegas, economically, is a very strong proposition,” he said. “There’s no state income tax here. The property taxes are low. The affordability of housing is very good.”

There’s also a bubbling enthusiasm around a community that finally has a team to call its own.

The NHL has been bringing its annual awards show to the city since 2009 and it’s not unusual to overhear hockey talk in these parts. The league sees value in being the first to lay down roots here, especially since others will likely follow suit in years to come.

“The first in a market, you do have a leg up,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “It does provide an advantage. I think you can create a connection with the community that can be long lasting and will be important.”

Foley already senses that connection growing.

He’s heard the team being discussed by taxi drivers and in restaurants, and has become something of a local celebrity since fronting the “Vegas Wants Hockey” campaign.

“The other day at Shake Shack in Summerlin, I was having a hamburger with my wife and one of my kids and this young man came up,” said Foley. “He was kind of standing and looking at me; I thought he wanted to sell me something. He was 11 years old, 12 years old, his name was Connor.

“He came up and said: ‘Mr Foley, I just want you to know I’m really looking forward to you bringing hockey here.’”

The dream will soon become a reality.

There is a tremendous amount of work to be done before the expansion draft is held a year from now – starting with a team name and logo. Foley hopes to have both of those unveiled by September or October so that he can “start selling some jerseys.”

While he has long favoured the “Black Knights” nickname, he indicated Wednesday that “maybe political correctness is not perfect” with it. He’ll likely choose to go with something else.

Whatever it ends up being, Foley expects to build his organization into a brand with international appeal. There are roughly 42 million visitors to Las Vegas every year and he expects a good portion of those people to leave with some hockey apparel.

Here in the city, the team will be something to rally around. It should be a reminder that there’s a lot more to Las Vegas than gambling and partying.

“What hockey will do for Las Vegas is give it an identity that is unto itself, as opposed to the Strip,” said Foley. “Because really the local residents aren’t about the Strip. They’re about going to good restaurants and they’re about to going to local bars and having fun and having friends and playing golf and hiking in the Red Rocks.

“But the reality is this gives Las Vegas an identity its never had. It’s going to be fun being part of it.”

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