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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

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