Wranglers rocked as fans rock

Mini Kiss and the Midnight Wranglers. A match made in Las Vegas hockey heaven.

Well, at least it was for a festive, season-high crowd of 5,505 that turned out at the Orleans Arena early Tuesday for the Wranglers’ eighth annual midnight game.

Las Vegas lost 5-3, but the game was almost an afterthought to the promotion itself.

The popular event, this year featuring the Kiss tribute band made up entirely of little people, is the brainchild of Las Vegas team president — and ringmaster — Billy Johnson. He considers it one of the top promotions of his career in professional sports.

“The midnight game stands on its own,” he said. “It sort of goes beyond promotion and takes hold into tradition.

“It’s a pretty cool thing, and it’s the only one like it anywhere.”

Johnson’s mischievous mind also has hatched such popular Wranglers promotions as “Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night” and “Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night.”

Of the more than 20 specialty uniforms the city’s ECHL franchise has worn in its eight seasons, the black-and-white striped Blagojevich prison jerseys were Johnson’s favorites.

“(The) Blagojevich (promotion) was fun, well-executed and topical,” he said. “It had a lot of people giggling.”

The Wranglers were aided and abetted by several accomplices in that game against Bakersfield, Calif.

The Condors donned bright orange Department of Corrections uniforms, the on-ice officials were dressed like prison guards, and the goal judges wore black robes and powder wigs.

“We went so far as to put actual bars on the penalty boxes,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t wait to see that first fight.”

The promotion that poked fun at former U.S. Vice President Cheney — who had accidentally shot his friend during a quail hunt — provided patrons with bright orange vests emblazoned with the words “Don’t Shoot, I’m Human.”

“(The) Dick Cheney (promotion) was a jewel. It was a textbook publicity stunt,” said Johnson, who garnered national attention for it. “It was a great example of putting an entire event around a punch line.”

Before joining the Wranglers, Johnson worked for seven minor league baseball teams, climbing the ranks from mascot to general manager.

His favorite promotion was “Injury Night,” inspired by a sudden rash of injuries to the now-defunct Nashua (N.H.) Pride.

To try to break the “curse,” Johnson offered free tickets to seats above the dugout to any fan who showed up wearing a cast.

“Our logic was if we put the most accident-prone fans in the most dangerous seats and nobody gets hurt, the curse will be broken,” he said. “The visual was hilarious.”

Other promotions haven’t worked out as well for Johnson, a Kentucky native who started out as “Billy Bird,” the team mascot for the Louisville Redbirds.

While working for the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts, Johnson held a doomed “Diamond Dig,” in which the team buries a diamond in the infield and invited women to dig it out with a plastic spoon after the game.

“We lost the diamond,” Johnson said. “We buried it and couldn’t find it.

“There were a lot of angry women after 30 minutes on their hands and knees digging for a diamond.”

After local news stations ran “Diamond Watch” updates in the ensuing days to ensure nobody broke into the stadium, Johnson called for a pick ax to excavate the area. But the women who took part in the promotion insisted Johnson use a plastic spoon as well.

While the mystery of the missing diamond was never solved, Johnson suspects a player might have picked it up during the game and put it in his shoe.

In another stunt, Johnson once tried to convince Jerry Seinfeld to play right field for the Kinston (N.C.) Indians, whose then-right fielder, Marc Marini, bore a striking resemblance to the comedian. But Seinfeld turned him down. Sort of.

“His comment to ‘Entertainment Tonight’ was ‘No comment,’ ” Johnson said. “I did not follow through on asking (‘Seinfeld’ character) Kramer to coach third.”

Johnson’s next inspired promotion with the Wranglers will be “Regrettable Tattoo Night” on March 18. The team will offer a free tattoo removal and replacement tattoo to one worthy fan.

As for fans who enjoy watching the Wranglers (15-7-3) skate in the midnight hour, they may get a chance to double their pleasure next season.

“If we can get the (schedule) to work out right, we’d love to add a second one next season,” Johnson said.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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