In yesterday’s installment, I went over the Las Vegas Thunder and how, for all intents and purposes, set up the idea of Las Vegas as a solid hockey market. Right after the Thunder left, the Las Vegas area got interest from the fledgling WCHL. Mike McCall, who was president of the WCHL of the time, said the league would be extremely interested in that market if it became available. It didn’t take long, as Mike Talkington told the WCHL he was willing to be the owner and the Las Vegas Wranglers were born.
The newly-formed team was set to start their WCHL trek in the 2000-01 season and would have been perfect rival for the Reno Rage/Renegades, but that wasn’t to be. Delays to the start of the franchise was mostly due to the lack of a suitable arena. While other projects fell through, like a project downtown Events Center, the Orleans Hotel and Casino came to terms with the team about playing in their new Orleans Arena starting in the 2003-04 season. This also came with the change that the WCHL was going to merge with the ECHL starting in the 2003-04 season, with the remaining teams in the WCHL– which included the Wranglers– would be absorbed to the new coast-to-coast league.
The glitz of Vegas started early, as Rick Schroder was the person to announce the Wranglers first coach and general manager, Glen Gulutzan. While it was a bit unusual for the “Silver Spoons” actor to introduce a new hire, Gulutzan was quick to get to work for his team nailing down a NHL affiliate with the Calgary Flames while also signing veterans Jason and Mike McBain, as well as goalie Marc Magliarditi to be the cornerstone of this new roster. They didn’t seem to have the same buzz as the Thunder, but they shouldn’t have been put to that marker with a different climate in Las Vegas (and around the US) when it came to hockey. The Wranglers gained a lot of steam thanks to winning during the Glen Gulutzan era. Only one season under Gulutzan was a sub-.500 season, while the Wranglers winning the Pacific Division in 2006-07 and 2007-08, as well as reaching the Kelly Cup Finals in 2008 in a losing effort to the Cincinnati Cyclones. At the time, the Wranglers were led by Shawn Limpright, Tyler Mosienko, and towards the end, Adam Miller— all three being the top of the Wranglers all-time points list.
After Gulutzan moved to the AHL, Ryan Mougenel took over behind the bench, while the Wranglers also brought in Keith Primeau to be a special advisor to the GM in Vegas. However, the good times turned lean as the recession hit the US, seeing the Wranglers payroll be well under the ECHL salary cap limit. The team was much more youthful under Mougenel and while they were competitive, didn’t have much of the same success as they did before. The Wranglers still stayed above .500, but couldn’t get past the first round of the playoffs, with the exception of 2012 where they lost to the Florida Everblades.
During that time with Mougenel at the helm, ownership became a little mixed up. Part-owner Charles Davenport sold his shares to his partner Jonathan Fleisig at the end of 2009, while months later, Fleisig sold the new conglomerate of Wranglers Hockey LLC, which was headed up by Gary Jacobs, who owned a team in minor league baseball. While they chugged along, the Wranglers got another gut-shot when the Orleans Hotel and Casino said they would not renew the team’s lease after the 2013-14 season. This left the team scrambling to find a new home, but knew they couldn’t do it in time for the 2014-15 season. The team got voluntary suspension status from the ECHL and looked for a new place. The Plaza Hotel and Casino looked to get the Wranglers into their stable by setting up a rooftop arena which only held 3,500 people. When the Wranglers and casino realized it wasn’t feasible, the team was back to square one. With no new locations, the Wranglers folded up after 11 seasons and opened the door for the NHL to look at options for a team in Las Vegas.
However, despite the downer ending, the one thing the Wranglers did bring was upping the ante (pardon the pun) on how promotional work was done. Whether it be the annual Midnight Games to help casino workers who were usually on-shift when a game is going on be able to catch a game or if it was a wacky one-off promotion like Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night or the Indoor Winter Classic during the NHL Lockout of 2014-15, the Wranglers were able to draw the buzz of the hockey world even though they were sometimes overlooked being in the ECHL. They made other teams also step their promotional games up to draw attention to their team and get more people into the stands.
While it’s hard to say that the Wranglers were a driving force to help the Golden Knights get into the NHL (because they probably weren’t), but the fact they were able to get the eyes of the hockey world into their ECHL space was a big help to a market that was off the beaten path when it came to hockey. The Thunder’s hype begat the Wranglers and the Wranglers promotional abilities maybe help beget the Golden Knights. If nothing else, I hope that the marketing staff of the Golden Knights don’t forget the franchises that came before them and do those teams justice, even if it’s just on the concourse of T-Mobile Arena.