weather icon Clear

Las Vegas hockey history now includes an NHL team

When it comes to hockey history, Las Vegas is like the Toronto Maple Leafs on a power play. It is somewhat limited. We haven’t had a lot of old-time hockey here.

That is about to change in a most revolutionary way.

To put into perspective Wednesday’s announcement that Las Vegas officially has been awarded an NHL franchise that will begin play in 2017-18, Bobby Orr has the puck behind the net, and he’s about to set sail for the other end of the rink.

The icemen cometh. Bobby Orr is old-time hockey now.

Toe Blake, Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper. That was old-time hockey in its original iteration, on the ice and in the movies, and let’s cream those punks from Syracuse — er, Carolina and Columbus.

None of the aforementioned played in Las Vegas. It’s hard to fathom a successful power play, or even a two-minute minor for high-sticking, when it’s 115 degrees outside and palm trees are swaying in a hot, gentle breeze.

But Wayne Gretzky did it once.

On Sept. 27, 1991, the New York Rangers played the Los Angeles Kings in an NHL preseason game at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip.

Outdoors on the Las Vegas Strip.

It was 85 degrees and sultry when the puck dropped. It was surreal, like when the Sabres skated against the Flyers in a playoff fog that one year.

The Kings won 5-2. Gretzky scored in the third period. So did Jarri Kurri. The ice did not melt, although hordes of grasshoppers, attracted by the bright lights reflecting off the skating surface, descended upon it in the third period.

A raucous crowd of 13,007 attended. There was an appetite, and a thirst, for professional hockey in the desert.

The outdoors game at Caesars was the biggest slap shot ever witnessed here. It’s still being shown late at night on the NHL Network, before the infomercials. But with Wednesday’s announcement, what once might have been described as a cannonading blast from the point may soon be remembered only as a footnote.

As old-time hockey.

Unless, of course, you were one of those sweeping up the grasshoppers, in which case you’ll probably never forget it.

“If that was the first slap shot that helped proved Las Vegas is indeed a major league city that will support a team, then that’s the best legacy it could have,” said Rich Rose, the former Caesars Palace executive who had the vision and determination to expose the NHL to Las Vegas, and vice versa.

Gap-toothed guys had been knocking the puck around Las Vegas on a semipro level since the late 1960s, but it was the novelty game under Caesars’ bright lights that laid the groundwork for what was to come.

The Las Vegas Thunder would make their International Hockey League debut in 1993. The team featured a dozen or more former NHL players and a 17-year-old rookie from the Czech Republic named Radek Bonk, who would skate for 14 seasons in the NHL once he turned 18 and was eligible.

The Thunder were wildly popular during the inaugural season. They averaged 8,018 paying customers, fourth among the IHL’s 14 franchises. The Thunder were coached by former New York Islanders star Butch Goring, and they won 52 games and lost only 18, and they dropped the gloves every now and again.

Las Vegas hockey fans loved the physical style of play, and they loved the Thunder.

The team lasted six seasons. Two seasons after that, the IHL was gone, too.

“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 went on to a scouting gig with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and still makes his home in Las Vegas.

“We brought in (Alexei) Yashin, (Pavol) Demitra, Jimmy Kyte — these were NHL players.”

After the Thunder’s teal-hued jerseys were put into mothballs, Las Vegas was granted an expansion franchise in the West Coast Hockey League.

This team, to be known as the Wranglers, wouldn’t skate its first shift until 2003-04 — and not in the WCHL, but in a new coast-to-coast version of the ECHL, which was a rung below the IHL on the pro hockey ladder.

The Wranglers weren’t quite as popular as the Thunder, but they outlasted them. The Wranglers endured through 2013-14, providing entertainment and fisticuffs at a reasonable price. They sent a handful of players to the NHL, as well as their first coach, Glen Gulutzan.

The team was almost better known for zany promotions such as Dick Cheney Hunting Vest night, and games that started at midnight and featured between-period concerts by tribute rock band Mini Kiss.

“I like to think we kept the fire alive and developed the game for those who came after us,” former president Billy Johnson said about the Wranglers’ legacy.


After the Wranglers and their landlord, Orleans Arena, could not agree on a new lease, it was up to Frozen Fury to keep pro hockey alive in the desert heat.

Frozen Fury I, Los Angeles Kings vs. Colorado Avalanche, was played in 1997. The series lives on with a change of venue this year — the Kings will skate against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 7, and against the Avalanche the next night in preseason games at new T-Mobile Arena.

And any look back at the evolution of hockey in Southern Nevada would be remiss without a mention of Jason Zucker.

When he was 2 months old, Zucker’s family moved to Las Vegas. When he was 19, Zucker made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild, and now he’s a five-year veteran. He’s still young, 24, but more than old enough to grow a playoff beard.

That’s right, a kid who grew up where it’s 115 degrees in June, where the palms sway in the hot, desert breeze, made it all the way to the NHL.

And now we’re getting a team of our own.

Unless you were there the night they swept grasshoppers off the ice at Caesars Palace, you never would have believed it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Golden Knights Videos
Aliens Invade City National Arena for Competition
Aliens attended the City National Arena for a competition to see who was best dressed. The prize was out of this world.
Golden Knights rally to beat Kings in OT, 3-2
The Golden Knights were down 2-0 halfway through the third period, but two quick goals helped get the team back on track to beat the Kings 3-2 in overtime.
Golden Knights' Deryk Engelland Shares Advice with Rookies - Video
Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland has some advice for rookies: “Stick with what got you there.” The veteran NHL player also recalls his first goal as a pro.
Golden Knights Continue Preseason Success with Win Over Avalanche - Video
The Golden Knights prospects are continuing to prove they are worthy of a starting position, this time with a shutout 5-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
Golden Knights Head Coach Gerard Gallant Praises Prospects - Video
A day after the Golden Knights 6-2 preseason victory over the Arizona Coyotes, head coach Gerard Gallant discussed how impressed he is with the prospects, including defensemen Nicolas Hague and Dylan Coghlan.
Golden Knights On First Preseason Win - Video
The Golden Knights talk about their first preseason win including Max Pacioretty's hat trick and putting Malcolm Subban as the goaltender for tonight's game.
Golden Knights Zamboni Lessons 101 - Video
The Golden Knights preseason tips off on Sunday, Sept. 15 and you know what that mean, it's time to roll out the zamboni! Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a zamboni operator for the Golden Knights? Golden Edge host Cassie Soto finds out!
Allegiant Unveils Golden Knights Plane - Video
Allegiant air officially unveils its new Golden Knights airbus that will take to the skies soon.
Golden Knights Rookie Camp: 3 Takeaways - Video
Vegas Golden Knights rookies took to the ice on Friday morning for practice at City National Arena. While the rookies mainly participated in drills, it was good to see the prospects get ice time. Golden Knights beat writers David Schoen and Ben Gotz discuss their three takeaways from the practice.
Golden Knights Host Charity Golf Classic - Video
The Golden Knights held its 2019 Charity Golf Classic on Wednesday at TPC Summerlin. Before teeing off, Golden Knights players Ryan Reaves, Jonathan Marchassault and Alex Tuch said who they thought were the worst and best golfers on their team.
Ryan Reaves performs wedding ceremony
Reverand Reavo makes his debut for one time only at the Chapel of Flowers for a get married by Ryan Reaves contest.
Vegas Golden Knights President Kerry Bubolz on the Golden Edge Podcast
Review-Journal reporters Ben Gotz and David Schoen talk with Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz about his experiences with LeBron James, the team's new initiatives, a possible MLS expansion team and more.
George McPhee Conference Call on Nikita Gusev trade - VIDEO
Golden Knights President of Operations George McPhee answers questions on a conference call about the teams most recent trade of Nikita Gusev to the New Jersey Devils.
Vegas Golden Knight's Deryk Engelland Happy to Re-Sign - Video
Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland is happy to stay in Las Vegas after signing a one-year deal with the team.
Golden Aces hold Tryouts For 2019-2020 Season - Video
The Golden Aces hold tryouts for the 2019-2020 season for the Golden Knights.
Golden Knight's owner Bill Foley's House for sale in The Ridges - Real Estate Millions
Vegas Golden Knights, Fleury Make Day for Critically Ill Teenager in ESPN “My Wish” - Video
A 13-year-old Las Vegas boy who has faced Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treated to a special day by the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights in a new ESPN “My Wish” Series feature debuting Wednesday, July 17, on SportsCenter. In the feature, Doron Coldwell spends a day with the team and even gets an opportunity to replace his favorite player, three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury, in the net.
Golden Knights Sell "Battle Worn Armor" To Season Ticket Holders - Video
The Golden Knights sell their "battle worn" apparel throughout both of the teams seasons including pucks, sticks, helmets and skates.
Summerlin 4th of July Parade - VIDEO
On July 4th Summerlin will be hosting the 25th annual Summerlin Council Patriotic Parade, an event that has grown massively over the years
Golden Knights McPhee talks on the first day of NHL free agency - VIDEO
Golden Knights incoming president of operations George McPhee addresses the media as free agency starts.
Golden Knights Trade Colin Miller as Development Camp ends - VIDEO
George McPhee speaks to the media following the end of the Golden Knights development camp.
Golden Knights Development Camp Day 4 - VIDEO
Nic Hague stands out at day 4 of Golden Knights development camp.
Golden Knights Hold First Scrimmage of Development Camp - Video
The first of three scrimmages was held at the 2019 Golden Knights Development Camp. Golden Edge host Cassie Soto and Golden Knights beat writers Adam Hill and David Schoen discuss what stood out to them.
Golden Knights George McPhee Discusses Erik Haula Trade - Video
A day after it was announced that Erik Haula had been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes, incoming President of Hockey Operations George McPhee spoke to the media discussing the move.
Golden Knights Trade Erik Haula - Video
The Golden Knights have traded Erik Haula to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for prospect Nicolas Roy. Golden Edge host Cassie Soto and Golden Knights beat writer Adam Hill discuss the trade.
Golden Knights Coaches Looking for Veterans to Step Up in Development Camp - Video
Day two of the 2019 Golden Knights Development Camp is in the books. Director of Player Development Wil Nichol says his staff is looking for the veterans of the camp to step up and be leaders to the younger guys, while at the same time doing their best to impress the coaching staff.
Golden Knights Draft Player with Strong Hockey Bloodlines - Video
The Golden Knights drafted Mason Primeau in the 5th round of the 2019 NHL Draft. Primeau is no stranger to professional hockey, both his dad (Wayne Primeau) and his uncle (Keith Primeau) played in the NHL.
Golden Knights Kelly McCrimmon Talks Development Camp - VIDEO
Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon talks about what he expects from everyone at development camp on their first day.
Golden Knights Dylan Coghlan On Veteran Experience - VIDEO
Golden Knights defenseman Dylan Coghlan talks about his veteran experience playing in Chicago and development camp.
Golden Knights President George McPhee talks about Williams Karlsson's 8 year deal
George McPhee presser highlights June 25, 2019.
Golden Knights Center William Karlsson speaks to media about 8 year contract
William Karlsson presser highlights June 25, 2019.
Golden Knights Development Camp at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada
For the third consecutive year, Vegas Golden Knights Development Camp participants participated in a special community event at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye