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NHL draft at Sphere latest spectacle for Golden Knights, NHL

Updated June 24, 2024 - 7:03 pm

Saturday marked eight years to the day NHL commissioner Gary Bettman awarded Las Vegas the league’s 31st franchise.

Little did Bettman think on June 22, 2016, that Las Vegas would boom as a hockey town.

The Golden Knights have been at the epicenter of almost all the NHL’s major events since. They’ve hosted an expansion draft and an All-Star Weekend, taken part in two Stanley Cup Finals and participated in their first outdoor Winter Classic this year.

The Knights can now add the NHL draft to their list. The two-day event is coming to Sphere on Friday and Saturday.

“Our hockey group is excited because it’s another opportunity for us as an organization to show off Las Vegas and what a great hockey town it’s become,” Knights president Kerry Bubolz said. “That is a really phenomenal opportunity.”

This is the second time in three years Las Vegas is hosting the draft of one of the four major men’s professional sports leagues. The NFL drew more than 300,000 fans over three days in April 2022.

The NHL won’t bring in as large of crowd. But the league hopes it will make up for that by providing one of the most unique viewing experiences ever for a draft.

The NHL draft will be Sphere’s first televised event since the venue opened Sept. 29. The league plans to make it one to remember.

“It has been extremely interesting,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “In one way it’s been daunting. And in another way, it’s been so cool. It’s such a different venue.”

How we got here

The first NHL entry draft took place in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal on June 5, 1963. It wasn’t televised. There were no fans. Players, including No. 1 overall pick Garry Monahan, didn’t even know there was a draft.

Things have changed over the following 60 years. Friday’s first round will be televised on ESPN and most top prospects will be at Sphere waiting to see where they end up. There will be fans in attendance as well hoping their team snags a future franchise cornerstone.

All 32 NHL clubs have a table on the draft floor. The important decision-makers — general managers, presidents, amateur scouts — sit there while deciding who to select. Team representatives approach the stage and announce the pick once they’ve made a decision.

This year, the 875,000-square-foot Sphere will capture every moment.

Its 160,000-square foot LED video board will highlight each player that gets drafted and make them feel “larger than life,” Bubolz said.

“Visually, what that venue allows you to do is unique and different than what you can do in any other venue in the country,” Bubolz said. “You think about an 18-year-old player, he gets drafted and walks up that stage. You think of highlights of that player, the imagery. I think it’s a really unique and cool opportunity.”

The NHL draft is normally held in the host team’s arena. Timing played a role in the event coming to Sphere instead.

The NHL’s season won’t end until Monday’s Game 7 between the Edmonton Oilers and the Florida Panthers. The start of free agency is July 1. The NHL wanted to make sure the draft took place between those two dates. That made going to T-Mobile Arena difficult because UFC 303 is scheduled for Saturday.

Bubolz said UFC was not comfortable moving the date of the event, which was set to feature Conor McGregor’s return to the octagon before he pulled out with an injury.

The NHL was thinking about Sphere even before it was forced to pivot, however. Mayer went to the first show of the band U2’s residency there and pitched Bettman about holding the draft at the venue. It will give the NHL the first sports-related event inside the building constructed by the Madison Square Garden Company.

“We knew what we were getting into, and we knew that it was going to be unique and we had to learn along the way,” Mayer said. “We got to school on a venue that is state-of-the-art, unbelievably ahead of the curve.”

Unique challenges

Mayer said he likes to think the NHL and the venue have learned a lot from each other as they prepare for Sphere’s first live event.

Most of the building’s production elements are packaged beforehand. The NHL is going to test the limits on what it can do on the fly. It wants live graphics and up-to-the-minute stats as part of the draft experience.

“For us, we can’t do (preproduction). We have to react to what’s happening in the moment,” Mayer said. “When you do get drafted, your photo, your image, your stats, everything has to populate on that media plane (the LED board) in real time. This has been quite an opportunity for us, a production we’ve never experienced. ”

Everything going on inside will also be shown outside.

The draft’s TV broadcast will air on the Exosphere, the outside of the Sphere, in another first for the venue. Fans can walk down Sands Avenue and Koval Lane on Friday and see everything taking place.

Mayer said the NHL took note of certain elements Formula One utilized during the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November that hinted at being able to transmit a live feed on the exterior.

“I think everyone understands how different and unique this could be,” Mayer said. “We’ve talked to our broadcasters about this — you can’t approach this remotely how you have in the past. You can’t cover a draft and make it small. You’ve got to go big, think big.”

Last of its kind

A majority of NHL teams voted in October in favor of decentralizing the draft.

That means no more draft tables. No more team representatives announcing picks onstage. The NHL will move to a format similar to what the NFL and NBA do, where teams call in their picks from separate locations, like the Raiders’ Henderson headquarters.

Mayer and Bubolz hope Sphere makes the NHL reconsider.

“I’m hopeful enough of the right people from the league … after this event that they say, ‘Hey, maybe we should rethink this and continue it in its existing format.’ If not, that’s part of the evolution,” Bubolz said. “I lead with (the) fan when I think of the NHL’s opportunity. If it’s more fan-friendly to do it this way, then I think we should keep doing it this way, but I also respect the hockey side of this piece.”

Mayer believes this draft has a chance to be one to remember. He said it’s possible the in-person draft is going out with a bang.

“I do think, personally, that it will make people think about the decision,” Mayer said. “We haven’t decided on where we’re going next year. We haven’t made that call yet, and we’ll hear the reaction when it’s all done.”

Hockey town

The draft isn’t the only NHL event coming to Las Vegas this week.

The league’s annual awards show will take place Thursday at BleauLive Theater inside Fontainebleau. The event is back in Las Vegas for the 11th time since 2009 but the first time since 2019.

The packed schedule is just another sign of how much hockey has grown since Bettman awarded Bill Foley a franchise in 2016. It’s also a significant milestone for the Knights, who have wanted to host the draft for years.

“Truly, I think we’ve become a real hockey town, and that’s been fun to watch develop,” Bubolz said. “I think we believed from Day 1 that we could win here and build a special situation here in Las Vegas. I think we all would admit that it happened faster than anyone would’ve believed.”

Mayer said Las Vegas has turned into a place NHL fans want to visit because of the endless number of theaters and venues at its disposal.

The Knights’ on-ice success has helped. It’s made the city a place the NHL has chosen to visit time and time again.

“It used to be the event capital and entertainment capital of the world,” Mayer said. “Let’s face it. It’s slowly becoming a sports capital.”

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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