‘Frozen Fury’ might be nearing end in Las Vegas

What started out as a marketing stunt and evolved into a weekend party for hockey fans could be coming to an end. And the Los Angeles Kings have no one to blame but themselves.

The Kings’ annual “Frozen Fury” NHL preseason game at the MGM Grand Garden has given their fans the best of both worlds: a season preview and a Las Vegas weekend getaway.

Several thousand make the trip from Southern California every year, as is the case for tonight’s 10th anniversary game. The Kings will take on the Colorado Avalanche at 7.

But with the NHL starting to take a more serious look at Las Vegas as a site for a franchise, the Kings could find themselves pushed out of the market where they helped generate interest in hockey.

“On one hand, experiment well done,” said Tim Leiweke, the Kings’ chief executive officer and team governor. “On the other hand, because of the success we’ve had in Las Vegas, we’re likely not going to be here much longer. We could find ourselves being the visiting team instead of the home team.”

Leiweke attended Tuesday’s Board of Governors meeting in Chicago, and while there were no plans to formally consider expansion, he said Las Vegas is gaining momentum as a future NHL city.

“You still have to find an owner and get a franchise, and ultimately it’s up to (NHL commissioner) Gary (Bettman),” Leiweke said. “But I can tell you there’s a lot of enthusiasm about Las Vegas and it is building.”

A big reason for that is the $500 million, 20,000-seat arena Leiweke’s organization, Anschutz Entertainment Group, is planning to build on Koval Lane and East Flamingo Road behind Bally’s. Leiweke said plans are moving along on an arena design, which he hopes to have in place by the end of the year along with a management team to oversee the project.

“We’re still planning to break ground next summer and open in 2010,” he said.

Even though more than half of the 12,000 who annually attend the Frozen Fury game are coming from outside Las Vegas, Leiweke believes there’s enough local support for Las Vegas to support an NHL franchise.

“No question,” he said. “I can tell you flat out that the success we’ve had here (in Las Vegas) helped create the momentum for the conversation about a Vegas expansion team. You didn’t hear that 10 years ago.”

The original notion behind the Frozen Fury endeavor in 1997 was that Las Vegas was Kings territory. Leiweke said the team paid the NHL a fee for territorial rights to Las Vegas, and if the team was paying for influence in Southern Nevada, it might as well use the market.

“We figured it made sense to play games and expose the Vegas market to the NHL,” he said. “We knew it would work.”

Too well perhaps.

“This reminds me a lot of Denver when they had the (International Hockey League) Grizzlies,” he said. “That led to the Avalanche relocating (from Quebec City), and this is a very similar situation with Las Vegas. I think you’re going to see some things happening in the near future that is going to change Las Vegas.”

Kings veteran defenseman Rob Blake has seen the interest in hockey grow. He has played in all the Frozen Fury games and also believes the NHL will work in Las Vegas full time.

“With the amount of people living there now and the number of visitors that come to Vegas, there’s no doubt in my mind it would work,” Blake said. “For the players, I can tell you we love coming here. It’s a chance for us to bond as a team and be close with our fans.”

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