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Wranglers fans overpower World Cup buzz

The local soccer pubs started filling up early Tuesday. Wild-eyed types sporting star-spangled get-ups and faded Landon Donovan jerseys were pounding mass quantities of copper-colored ale into their 18-yard boxes, because the U.S. was playing Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup.

These fans appeared to be dedicated, and perhaps a little loaded.

They were not, however, the most dedicated sports fans in Las Vegas.

Gareth Mitchell and Ron Love are not soccer fans. They were Las Vegas Wranglers hockey fans; they still are Wranglers fans, even if the team has suspended operations until it can attract a suitor in Flagstaff, Ariz., or someplace like that.

Mitchell and Love don’t believe the Wranglers will be moving to Flagstaff. They believe the team will be coming back in 2015. They believe one of the existing arenas in town will open its doors to the Wranglers and midnight hockey and Mini KISS, or that a new arena will be built for a new team, even if it’s on top of the Stratosphere Tower.

Yes, it’s going to be hell getting a Zamboni up there to the 108th floor. But that’s sort of what the Wranglers were planning to do at the Plaza downtown, before the logistics police intervened and sanity was restored.

Gareth Mitchell, 40, an unemployed accountant, is president of the Wranglers Super Rooter Club.

Ron Love, 58, a retired firefighter from Station 13, the firehouse at McCarran International Airport, is Wranglers Super Rooter No. 1.

I found them Monday at the Wranglers Super Rooter Club Phantom Fireworks stand just off the 215 Beltway, in a strip mall at the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Fort Apache Road. This is the same fireworks stand they operate every year during Fourth of July.

Unlike the Wranglers, they have not suspended operations.

Most years, they’ll clear about $1,000 selling 9-shot Emerald City Premieres, 72-shot Swashbucklers and 7-shot Crackling Mines, or those big assortment packages of pyrotechnics, one of which is called “Battle of Yorktown.”

They also sell a ton of sparklers. In a good year, they might even clear $3,000.

All of the money, every cent, goes to help furnish apartments for Wranglers players. Provided there are Wranglers players.

“Last year we bought ’em George Foreman grills, because those aren’t covered by the collective bargaining agreement,” said Mitchell, who hails from the San Jose, Calif., suburbs, where he fell in love with the NHL’s Sharks but couldn’t go to a lot of games because it cost too much.

The first hockey game Ron Love saw was a Wranglers one at Orleans Arena. Probably against Stockton, because it seems the Wranglers were always playing Stockton. When he was growing up in Las Vegas, there wasn’t much hockey, and the only ice to be found was in a highball glass. Now Love owns 24 Wranglers jerseys. He said he also could probably produce a Dick Cheney hunting vest, if pressed.

It was exactly 100 degrees when I spoke to these Super Rooters. It wasn’t yet noon. You could see heat lines shimmering off the blacktop between Lowe’s and the Sports Authority in that strip mall. Even Gordie Howe would have been wearing shorts and flip-flops.

Only one potential customer came by the fireworks stand while I was there. He did not care to discuss the Wranglers, or contribute to keeping the team’s name out there in the public consciousness. He only wanted to discuss getting a deal on the “Battle of Yorktown.”

Mitchell, who claims to have witnessed every home game the Wranglers played against Stockton (and also some road games), doesn’t think it’s going to take another miracle on ice for the franchise to be resuscitated. He’s more optimistic than the Charlestown Chiefs’ checking line when Dickie Dunn wrote the team was moving to Florida.

He said if minor league hockey can return to Cincinnati and Toledo after being put into mothballs, it can return to Las Vegas, too.

For the sake of these guys and a lot of other hockey fanatics in Las Vegas — and for Mini KISS and the monkeys riding dogs, who never made it to the game because the weather was bad — I hope he’s right. The Wranglers sure were fun while they lasted/until suspending operations.

But just in case (and unlike the Wranglers) the Super Rooters have a contingency plan.

Love and his wife have purchased Bakersfield Condors 12-game mini-season-ticket plans. He said it’s only a 4½-hour drive to Bakersfield, Calif., and there are some good Basque restaurants there.

Fine Basque dining. In Bakersfield. Ron Love swears it’s true.

Gareth Mitchell said he also has a backup plan if the Wranglers don’t return. It does not include driving to Bakersfield for marmitako and pinchos.

“I bowl,” he said.

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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