LAS VEGAS — There will be pro hockey in Las Vegas.
On Wednesday afternoon, commissioner Gary Bettman answered an oft-asked question from the past year and a half — will the NHL expand? — in the affirmative.
In some ways, it was the easier of two major questions surrounding this topic to answer.
NHL owners agreed that principal owner Bill Foley and the citizens of Las Vegas had displayed enough commitment during a trial season-ticket drive to warrant the league’s first expansion since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets joined in 2000-01.
But know this: Although critics or skeptics — and there are plenty inside and outside the game — have portrayed this move as a straight cash grab by owners who will split the $500 million expansion fee, part of the reason the approval process took so long was that many owners weren’t swayed by the size of the fee. Instead, some took the long view of how adding a team in Las Vegas — and thus another mouth at the table — might affect them down the road in terms of revenue sharing.
Which brings us to the second — and ultimately most important — question regarding this venture: Will it work?
Over the past few days in Las Vegas, as owners, executives and players gathered for Wednesday’s board of governors meeting and awards ceremony, that has been the most asked question. The answer will not be fully known for months, maybe years, of course. But now that the league has committed to coming here, all eyes will be on the team as it begins to take shape in the coming weeks and months.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Foley acknowledged that he’ll undoubtedly make mistakes. He is human, after all.
But can he limit those mistakes to ones that won’t damage the team’s chances at success on the ice and in the community? His track record as an enormously successful businessman suggests the answer should be yes.
Imagine this team is a house. Foley is part of the foundation, and a big one. He recalled how, in discussing his potential ownership role with Bettman, Foley initially suggested an ownership stake around 50 percent — but Bettman insisted he own closer to 80 percent of the team. To that end, Foley has been busy selling stock to make initial payments toward the expansion fee.
This is Foley’s baby, plain and simple.
It’s hard to argue with Bettman’s logic that favors having a singular, powerful owner for his new team. It’s not a given, but teams with single owners have a proven track record of success, as shown by the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins or Detroit Red Wings. In contrast, ownership groups with an unwieldy number of investors can sometimes lose their way. That’s what happened in Atlanta, although the problems with that franchise were myriad before its move to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011.
This new team in Las Vegas will represent a significant part of Bettman’s legacy as commissioner. He has worked tirelessly to put out brush fires on the ownership and franchise front for years. So, with an assembly of the strongest group of owners in the league’s history, the expansion into uncharted territory in Las Vegas looms as a major undertaking for the league, one that will draw attention to it from the broader sports landscape.
The success or failure in Las Vegas will reflect on Bettman in the same way it will reflect on Foley and the people Foley brings in to run his team.
In the coming weeks, Foley — along with former NHLer Murray Craven, a friend and associate of Foley’s who will act in an advisory role — will interview and ultimately hire the team’s first GM. No single hire will be as important as this one.
The first GM in Las Vegas and the staff he surrounds himself with will be responsible for preparing for next June’s expansion draft and the team’s first entry draft shortly after.
The NHL has created a scenario in which Las Vegas should enjoy better choices in terms of players from other teams than previous expansion teams had in drafts, but it will be up to its GM to take advantage of that.
Foley is determined — as is Bettman, apparently — that Vegas’ road to success be a short one, unlike the ones that the Columbus Blue Jackets, who did not make the playoffs until their eighth season, or the Nashville Predators, who missed the postseason for five consecutive seasons after joining the league, had to traverse.
Finding good leadership, signing players with high top end but who may have seen their evolution stunted by playing on strong teams, and getting motivated veterans and solid goaltending will all be keys to getting out of the gate in a strong fashion.
Having a GM with a clear vision of how to identify and acquire those kinds of players who fit the team’s identity, whatever it might be, will be crucial.
Still, building a team will be only part of the equation in Vegas. Selecting good players and smart staff is important, but it’s also key that those players and staff understand that their job, in this market, will be different than the jobs of their colleagues with any other NHL team and perhaps in all of pro sports.
Creating an instant connection with the community will be pivotal.
Foley already has plans for a multipad practice facility that will be a boon to local youth and recreational hockey. His marketing staff will have to work tirelessly to establish bonds with the grassroots hockey community, just as the trial season-ticket drive targeted grassroots businesspeople and individuals.
While it remains to be seen just how attractive Vegas will be for fans in other markets, it stands to reason that the Strip will be a significant lure in terms of selling tickets and getting fans into the building.
But it also stands to reason that if Vegas is to be a long-term success, it will be because local residents adopt the team as their own and ultimately make it difficult for fans from outside the region to get seats.
If the dominoes fall correctly, if the team connects with the community and vice versa, and if the team is as competitive on the ice as it seems it will be set up to be, tickets will be fiercely guarded by locals. If.
So many of those ifs and what-ifs loom for this fledgling market. Beginning Thursday, the answers will slowly start to reveal themselves as we build to the final, most important question — and answer: Will it work in Las Vegas?