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Graney: Bill Foley champions popularity of youth hockey

It’s a Monday night at City National Arena, and there’s a playoff hockey game unfolding.

There are two-on-one breakaways and backdoor passes and glove saves and players sliding into the boards. Even a poke check or two.

They’re really getting after it — in this 8U league.

Youth hockey has exploded across the Las Vegas Valley for boys and girls, and a giant stick’s worth of the popularity points to one reason: The Golden Knights have taken it to a whole new level.

Bill Foley’s team, just 6 years old, has always held a special relationship with its fans. Whether it was creating a bond through the healing process of a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival or the joy of becoming the first NHL expansion team to make a Stanley Cup Final, the Golden Knights share a faithful connection with Southern Nevada.

That has continued with youth players skating across sheets of ice.

It all can be traced to the inspiration of Foley’s organization, which has made the level a priority.

“I’m really proud of what we have accomplished,” Foley said. “We came here and there wasn’t really a great junior program like this. From the first day, we wanted to really develop boys and girls hockey.”

They have.

There are leagues for all levels of players, from house games such as the 8U playoffs to the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights travel program.

Foley talks about the two sheets of ice at City National Arena and two at Lifeguard Arena in Henderson. There is a need for more, which is why he says the Knights are hoping to add a few near the Henderson airport.

He wants it so no drive is overtaxing for families hoping to have their children involved.

“If we can have six sheets of ice and take the youth program up by another 33 percent, then we will really have something going,” Foley said.

Catching the bug

Brent Palluck and his wife have two sons involved with juniors, one on a 10U travel team and another in 8U. They never planned on becoming a hockey family, never gave it a thought.

But then Brent attended the first Golden Knights home game in history in 2017 and caught the bug. And then a sport was discovered that brought them indoors during the summer and away from sports in oppressive heat.

Sort of like a certain Hart Trophy winner (Auston Matthews) did while learning to play in Arizona youth leagues.

Now, the Palluck household can’t get enough.

“If not for the building of (City National) and the Golden Knights, it would have never happened,” Brent said. “It was never on our radar. Being at that first home game totally changed my perception about hockey. The junior leagues improve every year now. Our boys love it.”

Which is a central part of Foley’s long-term vision.

Here’s a main goal of his when it comes to youth hockey: That as kids are introduced to the game at a younger and younger age, they also will fall in love with it as perhaps their parents have. And as players get older and attend more Golden Knights games, the fan base will continue to grow over decades and decades.

Always a focus

“(Youth hockey) here is now bigger than I ever thought it would be,” Foley said. “You know, people said hockey would be a long shot in Las Vegas when we brought the team here. But we’ve been successful, and a big part of that is the junior hockey program and the fans we have built from it.

“It’s not noticed by a lot of people, but the kids love playing. And we’re focused on it and will continue to be.”

Listen. Until you have seen an 8U goalie poke check an opposing player, you haven’t lived.

Even though I’m pretty sure neither understood what happened.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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