Golden Rush: Vegas stakes its claim to the West
COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — In the northwest crevice of Idaho, among swaths of national forests and lakes encircled by lanky pine trees, there is only one indoor hockey rink. Until 2008, it was called the Kyro Ice Facility, part of the Kootenai Youth Recreation Organization, and was located in the resort town of Coeur d’Alene. The next closest NHL regulation-size arena was 45 minutes away, in Spokane, Washington. Then a harsh winter hit: 100 inches of snow, followed by a full week of rain. The roof of the rink collapsed in late December 2008. It closed for nearly four years.
“My two nephews used to play hockey,” Jill Smith says. “They quit when they had nowhere to play nearby.”
The rink reopened in 2012 — built with a $2 million insurance settlement and another $800,000 from fundraisers — under a new name, Frontier. Learn-to-skate programs and hockey clubs resumed, but the sport still isn’t hugely popular here. Idaho has only 3,582 registered hockey players, and it’s a non-sanctioned high school sport in the state. Only two Idaho-born players ever made it to the NHL: Guyle Fielder and Pat Shea each played fewer than 15 NHL games, both before 1960.
But, as some residents surmise, maybe the dearth of players is simply a connectivity problem.
“Our family is [Colorado] Avalanche fans,” Nicole Leppert says. “But we only get to see them on TV occasionally.”
“My wife is a [Dallas] Stars and [Washington] Capitals fan, because she used to live in those areas,” Mike Pennick says. “I just root for whoever the Stars or Caps are playing because there was nobody around here to root for. We have 11 kids. None of them like hockey.”
On Tuesday night, Leppert, Pennick and Smith were among the 250 people who showed up at Frontier Ice Arena. Leppert was there for her son’s first skating lesson. Smith was there out of curiosity. Pennick was there for the spectacle.
In the parking lot sat a 45-foot bus belonging to the Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s newest expansion team. Inside the rink, Calvin Pickard — a goalie Vegas selected in the expansion draft in June — did laps and took selfies during a free open skate sponsored by the Knights. “When you see something like this, you wonder,” Pennick says. “Maybe, eventually, this area could be known for hockey.”
When the puck drops for the Knights’ home opener on Oct. 10, they will become the first professional sports team to call Las Vegas home. And while it remains to be seen how a hockey team will be received in an area bursting with tourism and transplants — although owner Bill Foley boasts the Knights are already “in the top third of the league” in terms of ticket revenue and have “basically sold out” — the franchise has schemed a plan to increase its odds. Towns like Coeur d’Alene, which is more than 1,000 miles away from Vegas, will become Knights territory. So will the entire states of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — and even slivers of Arizona and California. They all comprise authorized distribution areas for Knights television broadcasts.
“There’s no professional sports team that attacks that marketplace, that’s involved in that marketplace,” Foley says. “So we can be the team of the Rockies, the professional sports team of the Rockies.”
In Foley’s view, if he can drum up support, fans will eventually come to a game. “There’s a direct flight to Vegas for every major city in this area,” he says.
This week, the Knights embarked on a four-stop, three-state tour of that territory. ESPN rode along for 36 hours of the caravan, a stretch spanning from Coeur d’Alene to Whitefish, Montana, and saw a snapshot of how an expansion team can engage with its new community — even when that community seems sprawling.
Pickard is sunburned. It’s 3 p.m. local time on Tuesday, and his day has already included a flight from his offseason home in Winnipeg to Spokane, Washington, a 45-minute Uber ride across the Idaho state line, a three-hour jet-ski cruise around Lake Coeur d’Alene — and, apparently, no time for sunscreen. “Just checking out the cabins, and, yeah, it’s gorgeous,” Pickard says. “Some of those cabins … let’s just say I’ve been known to log quite a few hours on Zillow.”
Both here and back in Winnipeg, people seem to have the same advice for Pickard about the perils of playing in Las Vegas.
“Everyone says: Don’t put it all on red,” the 25-year-old says. “But as I’ve learned, there’s a lot more to Vegas then gambling. It’s really a great community with a lot to offer. And on this trip, I’m seeing there’s a lot more to our area and fan base than just Vegas.”
Pickard’s meeting spot for the bus is the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express in Coeur d’Alene.
“Well, look at this,” Pickard says, scanning the caravan the team rented for the week. Normally the bus company takes this 120-seater out for tourist day trips to the Hoover Dam or Grand Canyon. The Knights took it out of rotation, slathered it with a black decal, their logo, and a bold message:
PUCK DROPS OCT. 10. ONLY IN VEGAS.
The bus reminds players of the mode of transportation most of them were relegated to in junior hockey. Pickard recalls sprawling across the floor for five-, six- or seven-hour rides, the rumbling of the wheels lulling him to sleep.
The evening’s itinerary isn’t quite as drastic. They’ll drive five miles to the local rink, where the Knights are sponsoring free skating and ice rental — and the chance to meet Pickard.
As he exits the bus, Pickard grabs his skates and pivots. “Wait,” he says. “I can’t go in like this.” The skate guards on his blades are emblemized with the Colorado Avalanche logo — Pickard’s former team. He peels off the guards and tosses them onto an empty seat.
The arena is abuzz by 5:45 p.m., with more than 150 kids and adults lacing up skates and buying $5 cheese pizzas from the snack bar. The Knights did little advertising for the event aside from posting on social media; there’s an 8 1/2-by-11-inch printout taped to the door of the arena promoting the event. Most local families learned about it from the arena’s email newsletter.
But perhaps nobody is as excited as 14-year-old Clayton Yates and 11-year-old Rohdy Yates, from Strathmore, Alberta. The brothers were on Day 2 of a camping trip with their family in Spokane when Clayton saw the Knights’ post on Instagram. It didn’t take but 10 minutes of begging until he convinced his parents to take the camper on a 45-minute sojourn to Coeur d’Alene. Says Clayton, who is sporting a black Knights T-shirt: “The reason I wanted to come so bad, and the reason I’m now a Vegas Golden Knights fan, is because then I could say I’ve been a fan since the start.”
The bus leaves Coeur d’Alene just before 9 a.m. on Wednesday, driving through 222 miles, a national forest, a reservation and a time zone to reach Whitefish, Montana. Pickard peeled off the trip back in Idaho — he’s returning to Winnipeg to resume his training — so in Montana, the bus will meet up with Jake Bischoff and Alex Tuch, two prospects the Knights acquired via trades who will vie for roster spots this fall. The meetup spot: a McDonald’s parking lot in Kalispell, Montana.
“When [the team] asked me if I wanted to go to Montana,” Bischoff says. “I was like, ‘Well, why not?’ “
Whitefish is also the headquarters for Foley’s restaurant group and the home of Murray Craven, the former NHL center who is now a senior VP for the Knights and one of Foley’s closest hockey advisors through the expansion bid.
There’s more of a hockey community here than in Idaho, and it helps that Craven is active in the youth hockey programs and Stumptown Ice Den in town. By virtue of being an hour south of the Canadian border and just five hours away from Calgary, there are a decent number of Flames fans in town. “I used to like Johnny Gaudreau,” 13-year-old Joey says. “Now my dad says we are going to watch the Knights games on TV. So I like Alex [Tuch] because I just met him.”
The Knights brought a hype man to their hockey clinic.
Nearly 200 boys and girls crowd onto the ice for the clinic, which includes a hype man emceeing with a microphone while on skates. Before the clinic began, the emcee gathered the group in a circle at center ice for a special introduction. He pointed toward Foley and said, “That man right there is responsible for bringing the NHL to the Rockies. … The … owner … of the Vegas Golden Knights!”
The kids tapped their sticks on the ice and then raised them in salute to the billionaire.
Looking on was Lanny McDonald, the Hall of Famer who captained the Flames to their only Stanley Cup, in 1989. McDonald has had a home in Whitefish for 40 years, and two of his grandchildren were skating in the clinic.
“Hockey in this area is growing slowly,” McDonald says. “An event like this will help it grow by leaps and bounds. If the Knights keep doing events like this in [the] community, I can’t understate what an impact that would have. You see how well it worked in Nashville, a nontraditional hockey market. Now, like in Nashville, it takes time, and you have to work at it. But it’s possible this can be a hockey area, too.”