How a young Golden Knights franchise unravelled the ‘Sin City’ narrative

Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nick Holden, left, celebrates with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) after Holden scored a goal against Colorado Avalanche during the first period in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

Remember what we used to think about placing a professional sports team in Las Vegas?

That players would spend more time in the casinos than the gym. That game-fixing was inevitable, and only single players would want to be there. Certainly, “Sin City” was no place for spouses and children.

Vegas was all about Mike Tyson’s tigers and $500 bottle service. And anyhow, with all the locals working shift work at the hotels and casinos, how would they possible draw a loyal following?

Well, allow Vegas Golden Knights veteran defenceman Nick Holden — father to four children and a home owner in Vegas — to bring us up to speed on the Vegas experience, from a National Hockey League player’s perspective.

“Lots of guys have started to talk about retiring here,” said Holden, who grew up in the comfortable Edmonton suburb of St. Albert. “Once you get away from the strip, family living is awesome. The city has got everything you need, but it still feels pretty small. From our house out in Summerlin to the strip, you’re there in 15, 20 minutes.”

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As the Golden Knights’ semifinal series against the Montreal Canadiens shifts north, it also moves from one of the NHL’s easiest free-agent draws to one of the toughest. From a locale with no state tax to a province with the heaviest.

As the newest NHL franchise — we’re still waiting on Seattle to drop a puck — faces the eldest, it has become hockey’s dirty little (not so) secret that the Golden Knights may not have the history of a Montreal, a Toronto, or even an Edmonton. But they do have a distinct advantage when it comes to courting free agents like Alex Pietrangelo, the Conn Smythe candidate who chose Vegas last October.

It’s almost laughable how Vegas’s first men’s major-league franchise has unravelled a narrative that stood for decades, all revolving around that Frank Sinatra “Rat Pack” lifestyle. It insinuated that anyone with money who lived in Vegas would spend it on booze, gambling and women.

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Instead, owner Bill Foley spent his dough on facilities and the right people, creating an organization that is an enticing as the city around it. It’s a culture within a culture that has made Vegas an impossible foe for many other NHL franchises when it comes to luring free agents.

“For sure it’s an advantage,” began head coach DeBoer. “But it’s an advantage that isn’t accidental.”

The location, the weather and the city are obvious draws, DeBoer admits. “But guys want to go where they have an opportunity to win, and they can have a great lifestyle. The ‘opportunity to win’ piece, there are a lot of great cities, but not everyone wants to go there.

“The expectation (here) is that we’re going to win, we’re going to spend to the cap to win every year, and do whatever we have to do every year to win. People want to work in that environment.”

Holden’s kids are aged nine, seven, five and two. They are all in public school.

“The school is three or four years old. Academically the kids have done really well,” he said. “We’ve had our kids in public school the whole time we’ve been here. Some of the families have opted for private school … but it’s not something that you need to do.”

Realtor.com reports that the median list price (the halfway point between top and bottom) for a Las Vegas home is US $339,900. In Toronto that number exceeds CDN $1.2 million.

The median cost of a Vancouver condo is CDN $685,000. And when you walk out of your Vegas residence, unlike Vancouver — or any Canadian centre — a trip to the mall or grocery store doesn’t turn into an autograph (or heckling) session from local fans.

“Outside of hockey it is a very attractive place to come,” said Holden, 34, who previously played in Columbus, Colorado, New York (Rangers) and Boston. “You have great weather year-round. The cost of living isn’t super expensive. It’s a hub city for flying in, so it’s very easy for family or friends to get to. No state tax as well.

“There are just so many positives, it’s a pretty easy sell if you’re talking to a free agent. And they’ve been in the playoffs and making a push for the Cup every single year they’ve been in the league, so we have a really good team as well.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Ryan Reaves is probably as big a “man about the town” personality as you’ll find on this roster. He estimates he’ll get to the strip, “two, three, four times a year to have dinner.”

Whatever the number, it’s clearly not a remake of The Hangover.

“Guys coming in and gambling, hittin’ the strip — sure, the allure is there,” Reaves said. “But if you’re going to do that you’re going to be shipped out quicker than you got here. With all the perks that the city has, the way the fans treat you, how much the fans are invested in the team, guys come here knowing that they don’t want to jeopardize their time here.

“You try not to get in too much trouble.”

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