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Oscar Goodman started Las Vegas’ NHL relationship

The seeds for an NHL team in Las Vegas were planted long before Bill Foley or the Maloof brothers arrived with their flush wallets.

It was a warm September day in 1999 when then-mayor Oscar Goodman went to New York City to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

It was a get-to-know-you kind of meeting, not a let’s-make-a-deal one.

The meeting lasted about an hour, and it was the beginning of the city’s relationship with the NHL. That relationship is expected to culminate in a marriage Wednesday when the league’s Board of Governors meets at Encore and approves expansion to Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season.

“It was a critical day,” Goodman said of the Sept. 28 meeting. “We didn’t know them. They didn’t know us. We were trying to make a positive impression and establish a relationship.”

Goodman, now 76, knew he had to make a convincing argument. The NHL was preparing to expand to Columbus, Ohio, and St. Paul, Minnesota, in a few months, and Goodman wanted to make sure where he stood so he wasn’t wasting his time.

Bettman didn’t mince words. He told Goodman that for Las Vegas to be on the NHL’s radar, it needed a suitable arena, a solid ownership group and a market that was large enough to support the sport.

At the time, Las Vegas was 0-for-3. There was no suitable arena for the NHL, there was no ownership group, and the population in Clark County was just 1.3 million.

“I have no reason to doubt that Las Vegas can be a viable market,” Bettman said after the meeting. “But as I told Mayor Goodman, at the present time, we have no candidates for relocation, and we’re still going through our expansion phase.

“This isn’t a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ issue. There are other cities we’re talking to — Portland, Houston and now, Las Vegas. We’ll continue to keep the lines of communication open.”

Fast forward to February 2015, when Foley launched his season-ticket drive at the MGM Grand with Bettman in attendance. T-Mobile Arena was under construction. Foley, a billionaire and the head of Fidelity National Financial, and the Maloofs were the primary investors. And Southern Nevada’s population had grown to more than 2 million.

It took almost two decades, but Las Vegas met the NHL’s criteria. Even the concerns over gambling, which were discussed in the 1999 meeting, were no longer an issue.

“Going in, I wasn’t sure what their attitude was going to be, especially when it came to sports betting,” Goodman said. “At that time, the stance by the major sports leagues was almost draconian when it came to sports betting.

“But Gary was very open-minded. He did mention the betting issue, but treated us graciously and fairly, and I left there a very happy camper.”

Goodman’s dream — to bring major league professional sports to Las Vegas during his run as mayor from 1999 to 2011 — was underway.

He courted all four sports, even proposing that the city build a stadium downtown to host the Super Bowl and be the permanent home for Monday Night Football. The Oakland Raiders are currently looking at relocating to Las Vegas pending approval of a 65,000-seat domed stadium.

He partially succeeded in his quest. The NBA — Goodman also met with then-commissioner David Stern on Sept. 28 — eventually brought its All-Star Weekend to Las Vegas in 2007, and its Summer League has been a fixture at UNLV since 2004.

But what Oscar Goodman was unable to accomplish, his wife, current Las Vegas mayor Carolyn, will with the expected announcement Wednesday.

“I’m very proud,” Oscar Goodman said. “One of Carolyn’s priorities was to finish making my vision a reality and bring major league sports to Las Vegas. She’s very persistent.”

Goodman didn’t grow up with hockey and admits he’s not a huge fan. But he has a great appreciation for the skill it takes to play the game and for the fans’ passion for the sport. He anticipates the NHL will be a big hit in Las Vegas.

“I’ll bet the rest of the season tickets will be sold out in five minutes after the official announcement that Las Vegas has its team,” Goodman said. “I can’t wait until they begin playing.

“I’m very impressed with Mr. Foley. He’s persistent but not obnoxious. He’s the kind of guy Gary Bettman and the owners will embrace. I just wish he would call his team the ‘Las Vegas Oscars.’”

Goodman probably will have to settle for rooting for the “Black Knights” — Las Vegas’ first major league sports franchise.

“We’re ready for it, and we’ll be able to say ‘we finally grew up.’” Goodman said.

Contact Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow on Twitter: @stevecarprj

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