BUFFALO, N.Y. – Bill Foley walked up to the roulette table, put all his chips on “Black 31” and won big Wednesday.
The Nevada-based billionaire is officially the proud owner of the 31st NHL franchise and the first major professional sports team to ever arrive in Las Vegas.
For the mere price of $500 million — or $420 million more than the individual expansion fees of the Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets 16 years ago — the league officially announced Wednesday that it’ll be expanding to Sin City. As expected, the application for Quebec City was deferred to a later time.
“Well, Las Vegas, we did it!” Foley said after the Board of Governors approved the expansion unanimously. “Our great sports town now has a major league franchise … the NHL!”
The franchise, which temporarily doesn’t have a nickname but does have 14,000 season-ticket deposits and will play in the brand new T-Mobile Arena just off the Strip, will begin play in the Pacific Division in 2017-18. The team will peel off one player from each of the other 30 franchises during a June 21, 2017, expansion draft.
“Whenever you look at a possible expansion, the three things you look for is owner, arena and market,” said Wild owner Craig Leipold, who was on the nine-owner executive committee that recommended expansion earlier this month. “And I don’t think there’s any question, this is a total package.
“There’s so much going on in this city. I’m looking out the window right now, and there’s construction going on everywhere. Plus frankly, it’ll be fun to come to Vegas. It is a fun city. There’s a lot to do and lots of action.”
Wild left wing Jason Zucker got a shout-out from Commissioner Gary Bettman during Wednesday’s news conference for catching “the hockey bug” as a child before becoming the first Nevada-raised NHLer in history. Zucker, at the gym when expansion became official, was inundated with texts from friends and family.
“It’s exciting to be from this town and to be able to say now there’s an NHL franchise here,” Zucker said. “That’s pretty cool. I hope to be able to, with the Wild, play in this facility. I drove by it just yesterday, and it’s pretty impressive.”
Foley says the seats will be filled, and not just by casinos gobbling up tickets for high rollers and the scores of visiting fans who are sure to make road trips. Because of 2.3 million local residents, Foley believes other teams’ fans will be the “small minority.”
“Las Vegas is hockey ready,” he said.
Clint Malarchuk, a longtime NHL goalie who played parts of his final four seasons with the International Hockey League’s Las Vegas Thunder at the Thomas & Mack Center, has no doubt.
“We were treated like it was the NHL. It was kind of a hidden gem for the minor leagues at the time,” said Malachuk, a public speaker who lives 6 ½ hours from Las Vegas in Gardnerville, Nev., where he’s a horse dentist and chiropractor. “The way the city and the fans treated us, it’s almost like they didn’t care it didn’t have the ‘N’ in front of the ‘HL.’ There was always that energy, and on weekends, we’d sell the place out.”
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has joked that Las Vegas will have a big home-ice advantage, but Leipold joked, “I have more concerns about our management going out to party than I do our players.”
There are a number of expansion draft rules. The Wild will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender. Unless a player is willing to waive his no-move clause, no-moves must be protected.
That means, if they’re on the roster, forwards Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville will be three of the seven forwards protected and Ryan Suter one of the three defensemen.
First- and second-year pros and unsigned drafted choices are exempt.
That means up front, the Wild, barring roster changes, would be able to protect only four out of Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Tyler Graovac and others. On defense, it could protect only two of Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Matt Dumba, Gustav Olofsson and others.
“The way the rules have been set up leads me to believe every team’s going to lose a good player,” Fletcher said. “It’s going to be hard to protect yourself completely. It’s most likely going to force you to expose some decent assets.”
While some may be skeptical hockey will work in the desert, Zucker isn’t one of them.
“Vegas doesn’t do anything lightly, they don’t do anything small, they don’t do anything cheap,” said Zucker, whose brother, Evan, has put down a deposit for season tickets. “If they’re going to do it, they do it right, they do it big. Just everything, they’re going to go above and beyond.”