It was early evening Tuesday when Happy New Year tidings began lighting up my iPhone.
An old sports writer pal said we should get together soon/more often/before we die.
My brother in New Mexico said he was watching Johnny Football do his thing between Chick-fil-A commercials. My brother resolved to Eat Mor Chikin in 2014.
An old school chum who tends bar on a riverboat casino near Chicago wanted to know what our weather was like. Theirs was not good: Eighteen degrees and snowing.
Billy Johnson, president of the Las Vegas minor league hockey team, texted this: “Wranglers are getting kicked out of the Orleans at the end of the season. I’ve been swamped trying to fix it. Regardless, Happy New Year.”
Whoa! Talk about Auld Lang Syne.
It would seem some old acquaintance has been forgotten. Seriously forgotten.
The Wranglers, who over 11 seasons have become something of a staple on the local sports scene, will become unstapled from Orleans Arena at the end of the season. The Boyd Gaming Corporation suits have determined that minor league hockey no longer fits into the company marketing plan, which I believe is to make lots of money.
This is not good news for local hockey fans, or for local guys who drive Zambonis.
Billy Johnson says there’s probably a 75-percent chance the Wranglers will return to Las Vegas for a 12th season. Billy Johnson is an optimist. I’d bet a Dick Cheney hunting vest it’s no more than 50-50.
There was a meeting Dec. 6 during which the Wranglers had hoped to negotiate an extension of their lease at The Orleans so they could hold more hunting vest nights, and more Mini Kiss concerts, and more Indoor Winter Classics, which is what Wednesday’s game against Bakersfield was called.
Instead, they received an eviction notice. I’m told the meeting lasted about as long as the Cleveland Barons, or the fake snow that fell from the rafters Wednesday.
Because this isn’t “Slap Shot” and moving to Florida is not an option — and because Billy Johnson likes it here and believes the Wranglers have built a following and some equity — he is wheeling and dealing to keep the team in town.
At this point, it’s mostly wheeling.
The Wranglers have until Jan. 20 to find a temporary home for next season, which would buy them time before coming up with a more permanent solution, or before moving to Flagstaff, Ariz., or someplace like that.
“I feel like I am the custodian of professional hockey in Las Vegas, and it’s my responsibility to make it work,” Johnson said. “I’d put it, today, at 75 percent. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of stuff to pull together, and we’ve only got three weeks to do it.”
A lot of hockey fans to whom I spoke with Wednesday thought South Point Arena might be a good fit for the Wranglers. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the people who run the South Point are the same people who used to run The Orleans. They didn’t care much for hockey, either.
Heading into Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to Bakersfield, the Wranglers were averaging 4,599 paying customers, 12th best among the 22 ECHL franchises. Attendance is up slightly over last season, though the team has struggled.
I saw some nasty signs on windshields in the parking lot, comparing the Wranglers’ landlord to vacuum cleaners. But Boyd Gaming has every right to pull this power play, just as the Thomas &Mack Center did when it priced the Las Vegas Thunder into mothballs during the late 1990s.
It’s a game, sure, entertainment at a reasonable price and all that. It’s easy to get autographs from the Wranglers’ checking line after the game, and it’s easy to take a shine to the big lugs. But after the game it’s also business, and sometimes in business people get stepped on or checked into the boards with a high stick.
That’s why all of this seems more familiar than the crest on the Montreal Canadiens’ sweaters. Or the “B” on the Dodgers’ caps when they played in Brooklyn.
On Christmas Day, after punching the wrong button on Fandango, I purchased tickets for a movie at Santa Fe Station. I hadn’t been out there since the Thunder folded. The team’s practice facility has been replaced by those movie theaters.
It’s easier to operate a cineplex than a hockey rink. You don’t need a Zamboni to butter popcorn.
Still, having lit the red light once or twice on a frozen pond, I hope for Billy Johnson’s sake — and for the sake of those 4,599 paying customers who will miss pro hockey when it’s gone — that he can pull a Mike Eruzione and keep the Wranglers in town.
It may very well take another “Miracle on Ice.” It may very well take more of the outside-the-box vision for which Billy Johnson is known. It might even take a kind word from the founding members of Mini Kiss.
Time will tell. Three weeks’ time will tell. Time to pull the goalie.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.