With the Vegas Golden Knights entering the league with a new team this Wednesday, it’s probably time to look back at the hockey history of the Las Vegas area. While it’s not the richest of hockey history, it does have a few stories behind it. From being a haven for holdouts to being to top minor league promotional organization in the land. In this part, I’ll talk about the humble beginnings of hockey in Las Vegas through their International Hockey League stint.
It was humble beginnings for the area, as the Las Vegas area had an amateur club start up the fun in 1968 as the Las Vegas Gamblers played in the California-Nevada League with other areas like Fresno, Los Angeles, and Culver City. The Gamblers played for three seasons in that league before the momentum had people thinking they could take a team to a minor league level. The independent route was the right one, it would see, as the Las Vegas Outlaws would get into the independent circuit alongside the Reno Aces, New Jersey Rockets, and Erie Lions. After a successful first season that saw the Outlaws win 29 of their 41 games, the next season saw a lot of those independent teams actually affiliate with a league or fade away.
After the Outlaws left, it was an 18-year absence for hockey in the professional side of things of hockey. In 1991, the NHL came to town in an exhibition situation with the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers playing in a strange affair which had grasshoppers stuck to the ice, the first goalie helmet cam, and the ice holding up in 85-degree temperatures. With the Wayne Gretzky trade to LA and the NHL’s move to untraditional markets, everyone wanted to be in the hockey game– NHL or otherwise.
Much like recently, Las Vegas was a big market that was relatively untouched. At the time, the UNLV basketball team was a big draw and the only pro sport team was the AAA-baseball Las Vegas Stars. Enter in two investors of the Stars, father Hank and son Ken Stickney, as well as the International Hockey League. The IHL was a minor league that deep-down thought they battle against the NHL when it came to professional ranks. They felt that they could put teams in untapped or passed over markets by the NHL and be a big draw. What bigger place to put a team than in Las Vegas– a bigger, empty stage there never was.
With that, the Stickneys cut a check to the tune of $2 million to the IHL and the Las Vegas Thunder were born. It was quite the team, despite only being around for six seasons. It came to be a haven for a lot of names– both big and small– to be around, but at the same time; the team struggled to make ends meet. Even though the team had names like Radek Bonk, Alexei Yashin, Manon Rheaume, and Curtis Joseph come through their roster, the team had to take on the load of those contracts due to lack of help from NHL teams putting their players into the IHL. The team piled up losses in the seven figures even after the team decided to reject the other NHLers who were trying to use the Thunder as a spot to keep in condition before their NHL contract demands were met. While the publicity was good, it wasn’t good enough to keep out of debt.
The success for the Thunder was solid in the first three years, as they won two divisional titles and took home the regular-season points title in two of their first three years. Goalie Clint Malarchuk got a boost in the team’s first season with 34 wins before having a mediocre second season and then moving behind the bench for the team. The Thunder did have some big, albeit rental, players, it was career minor leaguer Patrice Lefebvre who broke away from the pack playing five-and-a-half seasons with the Thunder and putting up 158 goals and 553 points in his 429 games with the Thunder. Ken Quinney was a distant second with 413 points in his 376 Thunder appearance, then the drop-off continues.
While the on-ice product was good and the off-ice product got help with the addition of Mandalay Sports Entertainment group coming into play, the team could not come to an agreement with their arena, the Thomas and Mack Center, which caused the team to fold after the 1998-99 season. While the IHL folded two years later, if the Thunder could have stuck around– would they have been absorbed by the AHL, too?? While they were losing money due to the cost of some of the players and lack of off-setting costs from a NHL affiliate, the Thunder were able to make hockey a hot property. In their first four years, the Thunder drew over 7,700 people a season, which sparked other hockey teams to pop up in the area at the time.
From 1993 until 1999, four other hockey teams popped up; two of which were roller hockey teams. The Las Vegas Aces were an amateur senior league team, the Las Vegas Flash and Las Vegas Coyotes playing in Roller Hockey International, and the Nevada Gamblers played in the junior WSHL. There was a fifth team, the Las Vegas Ice Dice, but the league they played in seemed to be just an elaborate investors scam. The other teams were trying to cash in off the Thunder popularity, but couldn’t last more than a couple years.
In part two, I’ll look at one of the most talked about teams in minor league hockey that landed in Las Vegas and how they used their unique marketing prowess to grab headlines around the hockey landscape.
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