Goals to grasshoppers: recalling Las Vegas’ hockey history

Things that have left the building: Elvis, the minor league Las Vegas Thunder and Wranglers, Frozen Fury I-XVIII, grasshoppers.

Surely you remember the grasshoppers.

Sept. 27, 1991.

Kings.

Rangers.

Grasshoppers.

On a temporary outdoor hockey rink at Caesars Palace on a 95-degree night.

The little buggers — not to be confused with Ken “The Rat” Linseman of the old Philadelphia Flyers, at least not in this case — were attracted by the bright lights reflecting off the ice and came falling out of the desert sky during the third period. Wayne Gretzky thought it was a hoot. Not sure about John Vanbiesbrouck, the Rangers’ goalie, after New York allowed five unanswered goals.

It was a night that shall live not in infamy, but in insecticide.

Until June 22, 2016, the day Las Vegas officially was awarded an NHL expansion franchise, the grasshoppers being whistled for too many men on the ice might have been the most memorable occurrence in the city’s short but colorful professional hockey history.

Here are four others worth considering before pulling the goalie:

Las Vegas Thunder

When the Thomas & Mack Center was converted into a hockey arena in 1993, the Las Vegas Thunder immediately began to outdraw the UNLV basketball team at the turnstiles.

Radek Bonk. Butch Goring. More than 8,000 fans at every home game. There were shots, goals, fights, the Village People, a female (Manon Rheaume) between the pipes, and females on the blue line between periods, stripping down to their dainty things during infamous bikini contests. Make that infamous bikini contest, singular.

The Thunder, featuring nearly as many NHL players as the Golden Knights, went 52-18 during their inaugural season before, like so many things in Las Vegas, interest in minor league hockey waned about the same time the Thunder and UNLV dropped their gloves over their lease agreement.

The team lasted six seasons.

“Nobody could have done a better job than we did the first three years with our crowds,” said Bob Strumm, the Thunder’s former general manager who still makes his home in Las Vegas. “We brought in (Alexei) Yashin, (Pavol) Demitra, Jimmy Kyte — these were NHL players.”

NHL Frozen Fury

After the Thunder was banished from UNLV’s frozen pond, local puckheads were forced to settle for a once-a-year hockey fix.

It was called Frozen Fury, a series of NHL exhibition games featuring the Los Angeles Kings against another West Coast team, usually the Colorado Avalanche.

Frozen Fury I, Kings vs. Avalanche, was played in 1997. The series continued through 2016, when the Kings dropped the puck on hockey and high-sticking penalties at T-Mobile Arena with games against the Dallas Stars and Avalanche.

Las Vegas Wranglers

After the Thunder’s demise, pro hockey over the long term would return to Las Vegas in 2003-04 with the advent of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers.

The Wranglers outlasted the Thunder and skated through the 2013-14 season at Orleans Arena, which was just the right size for Double-A hockey and wacky promotions such as Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night, games that started at midnight and between-periods concerts feting pint-sized rockers Mini Kiss.

Billy Johnson, the team’s enterprising president and resident P.T. Barnum impersonator, said the Wranglers were sort of like Billy Joel in that iconic MTV video: They may not have started the fire for pro hockey in Las Vegas, but they certainly fanned the flame.

“I like to think we kept the fire alive and developed the game for those who came after us,” he said of the Wranglers’ legacy.

Jason Zucker

Jason Zucker was born in Newport Beach, California, in 1992 but moved to Las Vegas with his family when he was 2 months old.

He made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild in 2011.

That’s right — a kid who grew up here when about the only ice to be found in Las Vegas was at the bottom of a highball glass had made it all the way to the NHL. It was like a kid from Utah learning to play blues guitar, and then breaking in with B.B. King.

Zucker, 25, has been a mainstay with Minnesota and had his best season in 2016-17 with 22 goals and 25 assists. He also led the NHL in eyebrows raised and double takes among hockey broadcasters at every mention of his hometown.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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