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Las Vegas hockey fans cheer long-awaited arrival of NHL team

A hot and crowded atmosphere typically isn’t the place to be during a scorching Las Vegas summer, but that didn’t matter Wednesday at one bar located less than three miles away from T-Mobile Arena.

Hockey has officially landed in Sin City.

Nearly 100 people crammed into the banquet room at O’Aces Bar & Grill on South Decatur Boulevard starting at 4 p.m. to celebrate the news that Las Vegas has officially become the 31st team in the NHL.

“I can’t believe (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) actually said it,” said Ken Boehlke, the 27-year-old owner of local hockey blog Sin Bin Vegas. “I pressed, ‘Publish’ (on my blog). That was my first thing. But after that, I was just like, ‘He did it. He actually said it. It’s real.’”

The Sin Bin-thrown party, with all of its energy and array of characters, may have been a preview for what’s to come once the Las Vegas “anything but Black Knights” hit the ice for the 2017-18 season.

People are excited, and genuinely believe hockey will rally the town.

Steve Byers, one of 14,000 people to put down a deposit for season tickets, could barely contain his excitement all day. He and his friend and co-worker, Sean, slyly watched the live news conference on the clock before heading to O’Aces.

“Don’t tell our boss, but we were watching the stream live on the (Review-Journal’s) Facebook page,” said Byers, laughing.

Byers, 30, is a Chicagoan who has lived in Las Vegas since 2009. He is one of many who believe Las Vegas will thrive as a hockey market.

“The fact that 14,000 people would put deposits down for a team that didn’t exist,” Byers said. “That says a lot.”

Kimberly Korner, who has frequented O’Aces for the past 15 years and considers it her “neighborhood bar,” extended the party to the main room because it was “hot as hell” in the banquet room, which comfortably accommodates 40 people or so on a normal night.

“This is so exciting,” Korner said. “We need something fresh here.”

O’Aces owner Larsh Kellogg, 44, hopes his place becomes the go-to hockey bar just based off its proximity to the Strip.

“We’re definitely going to look into being the official home of the NHL team here in Las Vegas,” said Kellogg, who has owned the bar since 2007. “I feel like it’s an exciting time right now for Las Vegas. I was born and raised here. I’ve lived here my whole life. To finally have a professional team, it’s exciting. Not only as hockey fans but as Las Vegans.”

Boehlke has no doubt a professional team will work.

“Do you remember the (Mountain Ridge) Little League team?” Boehlke asked. “We threw a parade for a team that lost in the championship. They didn’t even win. We used to have parties every week for UNLV in the 1990s. Jerry Tarkanian has a street. To say we’re not fans of sports is insane.”

Joe Blau, a die-hard hockey fan from Detroit, took in the announcement live at 1 p.m. with a BLT at the more mellow Brooksy’s Bar & Grill on West Flamingo Road.

Blau, 62, works as a respiratory therapist on the weekends, but always finds time to be around his favorite sport. Whether it’s playing in a 21-and-over hockey league, watching live games on TV or streaming old videos of his idol, Gordie Howe, on YouTube, Blau can’t seem to get enough.

And he’s hopes other Las Vegans share that passion for the sport.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make this successful,” Blau said. “I’m going to participate, cheer for the team. I’m kind of bummed out that they waited this long and we miss the whole next season. It’s going to be kind of a tease.”

Blau also is in line for season tickets. He admits that his allegiance won’t change, but it doesn’t mean he’ll just be silent for the local team.

“I will always be a Red Wings fan,” Blau said. “You don’t give up 62 years of allegiance. When the Red Wings come to play here, I’ll wear my red sweater. But every other game, I’ll be supporting the local team. …

“It’s a new element other than the casinos. Some diversity, which is a positive thing.”

Taylor Mullen, 20, also was at Brooksy’s during the announcement. The Mullens family was visiting from Houston for the youth hockey showcase at the connecting Las Vegas Ice Center.

Mullen, who plays on the Texas A&M club hockey team and is studying business marketing, sat in a booth with his 15-year-old brother, Tommy, to watch Bettman deliver the news on the NHL Network. Taylor said he would have liked Houston to become the 31st expansion team, but admitted Las Vegas isn’t so bad.

“I would come to Vegas just to watch the games,” Mullen said. “I think there will be more fans from other teams than there will be for the Vegas team. But people will make it a long weekend to come see their teams play and then do Vegas, obviously.”

Chuck Engelhardt, a 35-year-old bartender and DJ, shared a similar sentiment.

“I absolutely think it’s going to work,” Engelhardt said. “People are bored of the gambling and clubs. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great time. But that’s the main thing to do here, so I think it’s going to be huge.”

Contact reporter Ashton Ferguson at aferguson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0430. Follow him on Twitter: @af_ferguson

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