The Vegas Golden Knights have been successful in their first season, becoming the first expansion team in National Hockey League (NHL) history to win their first three games and have consistently stayed on top of the standings for the Pacific Division. While the Knights have made their mark on hockey history in Las Vegas, they are only the most recent chapter in a textbook full of struggles for the sport.
Established in 1993, the Las Vegas Thunder was the first professional hockey team in the valley. The Thunder was a part of the International Hockey League (IHL), a minor professional league used as the alternative farm system for the NHL, with the Phoenix Coyotes serving as the Thunder’s NHL affiliate team.
During their short time in Las Vegas, the Thunder enjoyed relative success, taking the division championship and winning the Huber Trophy in their first season, and again in the 1995-96 season. Manon Rhéaume, the first and only woman to play in the NHL, joined the Thunder for two games in 1994. The Thunder proved that hockey could work in Las Vegas but ultimately failed due to the cost to keep playing at the Thomas and Mack, and UNLV officials refused to negotiate a new agreement with the team. Just two years later the IHS would also crumble.
The next crack at hockey in the valley was the Las Vegas Wranglers. After the demise of the Thunder and IHS, the West Coast Hockey League (WCHL) promised to keep hockey in the valley and granted expansion rights to Las Vegas in 1999. Originally meant to begin their tenure in 2000, the Wranglers faced the same housing problems the Thunder did. The team planned to use the proposed Las Vegas Events Center but were forced to switch to the still under construction Orleans Arena when plans for the events center failed to move forward.
Before the Wranglers could begin playing, their league fell apart. With the demise of the Phoenix Mustangs, Tacoma Sabercats and Colorado Gold Kings, the WCHL was absorbed into the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) along with the other surviving WCHL teams.
After acquiring the WCHL, the ECHL was propelled into a new status, later making the league one tier below the American Hockey League (AHL), and a minor league for the NHL. The Wranglers were made affiliates of the Calgary Flames from 2003-09, the Thunder’s old affiliate the Phoenix Coyotes from 2009-11 and then went independent from 2011-14.
Similar to the Thunder, the Wranglers enjoyed success while they lasted. The team qualified for the playoffs every season except the 2004-05 season but never won the Kelly Cup. They were also the first team in the ECHL to have three consecutive 100-point seasons, have the highest winning percentage in ECHL history and their mascot Duke even attended three ECHL All-Star Games as the favorite mascot of the league.
The Wranglers also made an effort to connect with the community and grow a local fan base, something the Thunder struggled with. An annual “Midnight Roundup” was created so residents that worked in the gaming industry could make it to a game.
This wasn’t enough to save the team from the same fate as the Thunder, with The Orleans Hotel and Casino refusing to renew their lease after the 2013-14 season. Similar to their beginnings, the Wranglers made plans to move into a new arena at the Plaza Hotel & Casino but ultimately were forced to end the team when the casino decided the stadium would be too expensive to build and they could not find another option for a place to play.
In the winter of 2014, the NHL allowed billionaire Bill Foley to conduct a season ticket drive to evaluate the interest in a new hockey team in the valley. With the success of the drive and subsequent applications in 2015, the league expansion to Las Vegas was unanimously approved at a league owner’s meeting on June 22, 2016.
Along with the triumphs in their first season, the Golden Knights also became a rallying point and a huge support system for the valley after Oct. 1 Las Vegas massacre. With the support of the NHL, their own stadium and the love of locals the Golden Knights are sure to be the start of a new book for hockey in the desert.