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Eric Duhatschek

Sinergy: Ovechkin and the continuing courtship of Vegas Add to ...

It is just before midnight on a Tuesday, and the NHL's most marketable star is doing a very new age thing.

Outdoors, on artificial ice - the sort they roll out at Radio City Music Hall for its annual Christmas spectacular - Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin is wearing an electrode-studded, ultratight suit of body armour.

The venue is the Roman Forum at Caesars Palace. In the background, there is a mammoth (and scary-looking) 30-storey mural of Donny and Marie Osmond, headliners at the nearby Flamingo.

At half speed, because of the tricky ice conditions, Ovechkin is going through the motions of playing hockey - skating, shooting, checking - in what is known as "motion capture" for the video game, NHL 2K10, for which he will be on the cover and act as spokesman.

The Las Vegas streets are overflowing, but only a handful of curious passersby stop to peer through the wrought-iron fence as Ovechkin and Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler lay down moves that will form the basis of the video game's play.

Naturally, it would be far simpler to perform these exercises in an anonymous arena - even Las Vegas could accommodate them, since the home of the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers is only a few minutes away - but what would be the fun in that?

This is a chance to test Ovechkin's star power - and by extension, the NHL's - in a market that has long intrigued commissioner Gary Bettman and his commitment to a U.S. Sunbelt expansion strategy.

Even if NHL expansion is not on the front burner at the moment, the expectation is that influential Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer eventually will land a team for Vegas. In its perfect world, the league would love to welcome Bruckheimer and his stable of A-list celebrities to games - giving it a cachet basketball has, and the NHL has long coveted in its endless quest to get a foothold in the U.S. sports mainstream.

About two years ago, the race to Las Vegas seemed on in earnest. The NBA brought in its all-star game. Harrah's and the Anschutz Entertainment Group announced plans for a 20,000-seat multipurpose arena on land owned by the casino giant that could accommodate either an NHL or NBA team as an anchor tenant.

The thinking was that Las Vegas, on its own, cannot support two major-league franchises. But one? Maybe.

Provided the casinos were onboard - and gobbled up the private boxes and luxury seating to host their well-heeled clients - then even a modest season-ticket base and the odd tourist passing through might make the financial model work.

That was the theory before the economy tanked.

With the 2009 NHL awards ceremony descending on the city tonight - Ovechkin's real reason for being here - ground has yet to be broken on the arena project. The completion date of 2010, noted in the original press release, seems like a pipe dream.

Even the talk of an eventual relocation of the Phoenix Coyotes to Las Vegas - once that team's next owners discover to their chagrin that they really, really cannot make a go of it in Glendale - would depend upon the completion of a viable arena.

"I think a team in Vegas would be good," Kesler said. "There's definitely the corporate sponsorship. If we're going to do it, we have to be the first professional sport to do it. We can't be behind the NBA or the NFL, just so we can get all the corporate stuff locked up.

"It's up to the league and the [NHL Players' Association] I'm sure they've done a bunch of research on whether or not it would work. Obviously, it would be a good road city to come to. The home team's record would be amazing - 41-0."

According to NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly, such research has yet to be done - and would be an important first step, along with a stable and viable ownership group, plus a state-of-the-art facility, in order to consider the possibility.

"This will be an important week to begin gauging fan interest and reception to our game in this area," said Kelly, who spent 90 minutes watching the video game filming and even took a turn on the artificial ice himself.

So for the moment, the NHL's interest in Las Vegas is purely decorative, the first stage in a courtship that may or may not go forward.

Tonight's award ceremony, in which Ovechkin is expected to earn his second consecutive Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, begins a three-year contractual commitment between the league and the Palms Casino Resort. Kesler thinks it's a good move to shift the awards from their traditional home in Toronto.

"Hockey's big in Toronto already," he said. "In Toronto, it becomes just another event. Here, it gives the game attention.

"I was walking through the [Palms]casino today. Seeing all the different guys' faces from the NHL, plastered all over the place, is good for the game. People come here to visit. It's a touristy city, so it's good to get the names out there."

Admittedly, no place does glitz and glamour better than Las Vegas, so for that reason alone, the awards ceremony should look good, both live and on television. Red carpets, minor celebrities, young athletes in tuxedos - all at the hippest property on the strip - will certainly create the impression that, for one day anyway, the town is ready to embrace hockey.

But the larger question - can Las Vegas ever sustain a viable NHL franchise - may go unanswered for a while, no matter how many times the Great Ovie turns up in Caesars' front yard.

HARDWARE HOPEFULS

Hart (most valuable player)

Favoured Alexander Ovechkin, Washington

Also nominated Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit; Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh



Calder (rookie of year)

Favoured Steve Mason, Columbus

Also nominated Bobby Ryan, Anaheim; Kris Versteeg, Chicago



Norris (top defenceman)

Favoured Zdeno Chara, Boston

Also nominated Mike Green, Washington; Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit



Lady Byng (sportsmanship)

Favoured Datsyuk

Also nominated Zach Parise, New Jersey; Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay



Selke (defensive forward)

Favoured Mike Richards, Philadelphia

Also nominated Datsyuk; Ryan Kesler, Vancouver



Jack Adams (coach of year)

Favoured Claude Julien, Boston

Also nominated Todd McLellan, San Jose; Andy Murray, St. Louis



Vézina (top goaltender)

Favoured Tim Thomas, Boston

Also nominated Mason; Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota)



Masterton (dedication to hockey)

Favoured Steve Sullivan, Nashville

Also nominated Chris Chelios, Detroit; Richard Zednik, Florida



Pearson (MVP selected by players)

Favoured Ovechkin

Also nominated Datsyuk; Malkin

 

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