For the past two decades, the Los Angeles Kings have claimed Las Vegas as part of their hockey universe.
The outdoor game at Caesars Palace. The Frozen Fury series at the MGM Grand Garden. The fundraiser poker tournaments. The junkets for the team’s corporate sponsors and season-ticket holders.
It has been an annual rite of passage for the Kings. But with Bill Foley looking to bring Las Vegas an NHL team of its own, it probably means the Kings will have to settle for regular-season visits to the valley, perhaps as early as 2017.
So is today’s 7 p.m. Frozen Fury game against the Colorado Avalanche at the Grand Garden the end of an era? Not yet, said Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations.
“We don’t know how it will work out,” he said of Foley’s attempt to land an expansion team for Las Vegas. “We know things will change. But I expect we would probably play once more in 2016 and play in the new arena.”
By then, the $375 million arena that the MGM and Anschutz Entertainment Group are partnering on will be operational. AEG owns the Kings, so it would make sense to have the Kings play in the new building, which will seat 17,500 for hockey (The Grand Garden seats about 12,000 for hockey).
“We can break it in for them,” Robitaille said with a laugh.
On Monday, the 20,000-seat Videotron Centre in Quebec City played host to its first NHL game when the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins met before a sellout crowd. Quebec City is also attempting to secure an expansion franchise for 2017, so there is some precedent if the Kings decide to play in the new MGM-AEG arena next fall.
For the Kings, the annual visit to Las Vegas has been more than just another exhibition game. It’s a way to kick off the season, and the atmosphere inside the building and the intensity on the ice have more of a postseason than a preseason feel to the game.
“It’s the greatest preseason game we play,” Robitaille said. “There’s a buzz about that game. The fans are so into it. Our players look forward to it every year.
“We’ve had a strong fan base in Las Vegas for a long time. Our games are televised in Vegas, and we have a very loyal following.”
Those who attend tonight’s preseason finale will see a much different roster than in recent years. It was a tumultuous 2015 season in Los Angeles that saw players run afoul of the law, injuries riddle the roster and the team miss the playoffs.
Defenseman Slava Voynov was involved in a domestic violence incident with his wife and arrested in mid-October. Center Jarret Stoll was busted for drugs in April while trying to enter the MGM’s Wet Republic pool. Center Mike Richards also was nabbed for drug possession at the Canadian border in June.
So president and general manager Dean Lombardi shook things up. Voynov and Richards were released. Stoll, an unrestricted free agent, was not re-signed and wound up with the New York Rangers. Forward Justin Williams, another unrestricted free agent, signed with the Washington Capitals.
Lombardi filled their spots by trading for veteran forward Milan Lucic from the Boston Bruins, signing goaltender Jhonas Enroth from the Dallas Stars to back up Jonathan Quick and bolstering the defense by adding former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
The Kings also have instituted an off-ice conduct training awareness program in an attempt to be proactive in addressing issues such as substance abuse and domestic violence.
“It was a long summer, too long,” Robitaille said of the Kings, who are 3-1-1 in the preseason, while Colorado is 1-3-1.
“We were disappointed about the way last year ended. But we’re excited about getting started. We have the makings of a really good team. We added Lucic, and we won the AHL last year, and we have some kids we think are ready to move up and help us.”