51s warn NHL players of temptations in Las Vegas

Professional athletes flush with cash and free time, let loose on the Strip, undoubtedly were a concern for the NHL as it considered the city’s bid for an expansion team.

But eventually the league decided the city could support a team and its unique set of challenges, as reports indicate an official announcement will come June 22.

Less than 10 miles north of the Strip, the 51s — the only professional team in town — are in their 34th season and provide precedent that a pro team can be successful in Las Vegas.

The biggest challenge?

“Making sure you keep your players out of trouble,” 51s manager Wally Backman said.

Backman has been able to do that. None has been arrested or developed gambling issues, he said.

“My whole thing here is if I can get the players through the first three weeks of the season, they’ve had all of the fun they probably want to have,” Backman said. “Not that they’re not going to go out anymore, but they realize you just can’t do that, especially with the job that they have. They’ll run themselves out of gas.”

But it wouldn’t be shocking to see visiting players dabble in the nightlife during their brief stays.

“Just about every single opposing team we play comes to Vegas to do just that — to get a Vegas weekend and mix in a couple games along with a partying weekend,” 51s closer and Las Vegas native Paul Sewald said.

But for athletes who live in Las Vegas, that’s an unsustainable lifestyle.

The 51s have a security meeting at the beginning of the year with Rob Kasdon, the New York Mets’ vice president of security.

“He’s got a really good speech, how players can get in trouble here opposed to other cities, what to be careful about and things like that,” Backman said. “It’s definitely helpful. Knock on wood.”

Travis Taijeron, in his second season playing in Las Vegas, said it’s mostly “common sense stuff,” and the overall message is “don’t be stupid.”

“It’s one thing if you go out and have fun. It’s (another) thing if you go out and do something really stupid and commit crimes or something like that,” Taijeron said. “Being a pro athlete and being in Vegas, I mean, it’s all about controlling yourself.”

From a business side, too, Las Vegas presents issues not seen in other markets.

Among them, many workers in the tourism industry work the swing shift and would be unavailable to attend games.

“That’s when the casinos are firing it up, that’s when the shows are going, that’s when the dinner is being served at the fantastic restaurants we have,” 51s president Don Logan said. “Those are going to be things that make this a unique challenge, but again I think the population is such that there’s still enough people available.”

 

With an expansion franchise, early success is hard to come by, and Logan said the team probably would have to market visiting stars coming to town as it tries to build a fan base.

Integrating into the community, too, is important, as is affiliations with one of the major players in town, Logan said. The hockey team will have that with a stadium financed in part by MGM Resorts International.

“I’ve always felt like the first one in, the first major league sport to plant the flag in Vegas, is going to have the best chance of success,” Logan said.

Betsy Helfand can be reached at bhelfand@reviewjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @BetsyHelfand

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