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Grassroots: Doubling down in Vegas

Create a hockey following in Las Vegas and massive growth is a natural byproduct. The infrastructure is next.

This is a tale of unintended consequences and falling victim to your own success. Meet Jorge Guerrero, former season-ticket holder for the Vegas Golden Knights. As a show of civic support for the first major professional sports team in his city, he purchased ducats for the inaugural season, one that ended with a trip to the Stanley Cup final. But Guerrero decided not to renew his subscription in Season 2, in part because he has to spend a fair amount of time taking his seven-year-old son to his hockey games and practices.

And so it was that Guerrero found himself behind the glass at City National Arena, which doubles as the Golden Knights’ practice facility, watching his son, Adrian, play with the Lil’ Knights house-league program. In the desert. In late June.

The younger Guerrero is transitioning to the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights, the competitive AA travel program, which has him on the ice two to four times per week. Guerrero started by taking his son to Golden Knights games and watching them with him on television, then they stumbled across the rink one day and decided to give hockey a try. “He couldn’t stand up at first, but that didn’t deter him, he didn’t want to get off,” Guerrero said. “And from there it just kind of took on a life of its own. He lives, eats and breathes hockey. During the season, he has the NHL Network on in his room, and he can name the mascot for every team. He’s rollerblading in the house all the time with a stick in his hand smacking a foam ball around. He’s just obsessed now.”

And he’s not the only one. According to USA Hockey’s registration numbers, there were 1,592 registered players in Nevada in 2017-18, the Golden Knights’ first season in the NHL. That number jumped by almost 1,000 players to 2,574 in 2018-19. And the state made big gains in the key demographic areas, going from 120 to 209 in the 11-12 age group, 118 to 292 in the 9-10 group and 97 to 233 among seven- and eight-year-olds. They also jumped more than 500 players, from 806 to 1,374, among adult players, more than doubled their numbers from 54 to 118 among girls, and have gone from 21 to 101 high-school players.

I honestly consider myself a full-fledged hockey dad. I can see myself driving my son for the next 10 years to the rink– Jorge Guerrero

For now, the biggest problem facing the market is where to put the influx of players. There are only five ice sheets in all of Las Vegas, and one of them is in a casino. Another is built on a base of sand and is showing its age. The Golden Knights and the suburb of Henderson have each invested almost $11 million to build a two-pad ice rink that replicates their practice facility, but it’s not due to be completed until after this coming season.

With a local learn-to-skate program, the NHL Players’ Association-sponsored Learn to Play initiative and the house league, there are now about 4,000 players coming through the system. Suffice it to say, things have changed drastically since the days when Jason Zucker, the only homegrown player Las Vegas has ever produced, learned the game by playing roller hockey. “The problem with everyone being interested in the game at the same time, I’ve got to build a league for them to play locally,” said Darren Eliot, vice-president, hockey programming and facility operations for the Golden Knights. “I was going to do that for a year from this fall when Henderson opened, but now we already have 14 fully formed eight-and-under teams for the upcoming fall season. Those are kids who have already gone through our entire program for the 26 weeks.”

It’s a good problem to have, though. As much as any team in recent memory, the Golden Knights have done a commendable job of connecting with their fan base. That began with the organization’s response to the mass shooting that killed 58 people that occurred just nine days before their first home game and culminated with their record-smashing expansion season and run to the Stanley Cup final.

Not only did Golden Knights fans fall for the NHL, they’ve begun to connect to the game on a grassroots level. And the Knights have done a good job of realizing that it’s impossible to make a bond and create fans if they have no access to the sport they’re watching. That’s why Eliot, a former NHL goalie, was brought in. He had previously done the same job for the Atlanta Thrashers and did facility management when he was with the Detroit Red Wings.

One of the biggest obstacles that competitive players in Vegas face is a lack of competition at home. Because of that, the Jr. Golden Knights play in leagues either in California or Arizona. Golden Knights assistant coach Ryan Craig helped coach his son’s peewee AA team this past season and instead of being in a league, they simply participated in tournaments. The peewee team played in the Quebec Peewee Tournament in the AA division, as well as tournaments in Dallas, Boise and the Silver Stick Tournament in Port Huron, Mich. They also hosted six tournaments themselves and ended up playing about 60 games. “With the influx of interest, more teams are willing to come here for tournaments,” Craig said. “The one thing about Vegas is people do like to come to Vegas. Hockey parents love to come to Vegas.”

And locals are starting to love hockey at all levels. Guerrero, whose parents fled Communist Nicaragua, was born and raised in Miami, came to Las Vegas in 2003 and works for the U.S. Air Force as a military contractor at the Nellis Air Force Base. Prior to the Golden Knights coming to town, Guerrero said he hadn’t watched an entire NHL game and could count on his fingers the number of times he’d been on skates. Now, between fees and equipment, he spends about $1,500 a year for his son to play hockey. His four-year-old daughter often walks around the house in her older brother’s hockey equipment, and Guerrero said it likely won’t be long before she’s on the ice with a stick in her hand. “I honestly consider myself a full-fledged hockey dad,” Guerrero said. “It’s kind of nuts, actually. I can see myself driving my son for the next 10 years to the rink and back. I look forward to it, actually. I look forward to bringing him to practice and watching him compete.”

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