This past Wednesday night the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas was abuzz with excitement and anticipation. This was the NHL’s answer to the Oscars, the night that the league’s best player, best goaltender, and best defenseman were to be recognized (among many other categories). The NHL Awards Night has been such an overwhelming success in recent years that the NBA has also followed suit.
This year’s event had a once in a lifetime dimension for those who were locals in America’s desert playground. You see, the NHL will be expanding to 31 franchises this coming year. Team number 31 will be residing in Las Vegas! I often rip commissioner Gary Bettman for his less than stellar ideas surrounding the sport of hockey. This time I think the NHL got it right! On a night where the new Vegas Golden Knights’ fan base got to see the makeup of its team, those of us rooting for the other 30 clubs were on the edge of our seats too. Seeing it play out on national television in the United States and Canada was, in my opinion, pure genius.
Last weekend, the thirty established teams had to submit a list of players that they protected from the expansion draft. That’s when the drama began. Leading up to Wednesday’s awards show & expansion draft there were rumors running wild all over social media. What was going on behind the scenes was a series of negotiations between Golden Knights general manager George McPhee and the other thirty clubs. Just because a player was unprotected, he wasn’t fair game for Vegas to pluck. By the time the Vegas roster was revealed, hockey fans in two countries were tuned in and paying attention.
Logo of the brand new Vegas Golden Knights.
The dramatic events of this past week surrounding the NHL brought back memories of other expansions. There is so much newness surrounding an expansion team. There is the novelty of a new market with new fans that are being introduced to a sport and a league. In a place like Las Vegas, where there is a noticeable percentage of transplants from other cities, it could be a sight for sore eyes. This was my experience when baseball and hockey expanded to South Florida in the early 1990’s. I also see the excitement in a couple of dear friends who left New York for Vegas years ago. These friends were season ticket holders for the New York Rangers for many years before they moved west. They’ve already bought season tickets for the Golden Knights and are supporting the new franchise.
Marc-Andre Fleury received the loudest ovation from the new Vegas faithful on Wednesday night. The former Pittsburgh Penguin, and three-time Stanley Cup champion is already the face of this franchise. This brought me back to my 1972 when Long Island’s Nassau County and Atlanta were the new kids on the block. A wide-eyed ten-year old was awestruck when the New York Islanders picked Eddie Westfall from the Boston Bruins. Westfall would be the face of the franchise for about a year. Denis Potvin would join the Islanders the following year via the draft. The Islanders would have multiple faces in their first decade.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the face of the original Vegas Golden Knights.
Fast forward to 1993, the year the Florida Panthers were born. To me, the most memorable selection in the expansion draft was goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck. The steady netminder was selected from the New York Rangers. Even to this lifelong Islanders fan, embracing The Beezer was a natural. South Florida’s ties to New York made this pick a natural. Vanbiesbrouck would be a three-time all-star in South Florida, and the backstop to the 1996 Eastern Conference Champions.
Original Florida Panthers’ John Vanbiesbrouck.
Enjoy the ride Las Vegas! This October your new team hits the ice. Congratulations to owner Bill Foley and general manager George McPhee for a job well done. Good luck to head coach Gerard Gallant and his staff. Onward with a new era in the National Hockey League and the metropolitan area of Las Vegas.