A few years back, I wandered into the sports book at Las Vegas Bellagio hotel. I was looking to burn some time and money in the late afternoon.
There are roughly 10 million screens in that huge space. It was a quiet time of day – only a few punters scattered about. I could see a lot of college basketball and horse racing on the TVs. However, no hockey.
No one seemed to be watching anything in particular. I asked the bartender if we could find a game. He pulled out a pair of remote controls and began scrolling through channels. No joy.
"Are you sure it's on?" he said.
"I can't find it."
It's there somewhere. I promise you.
"Well, we don't have it."
This is the most complex gambling operation in human history, armed with more satellite power than NASA. And they can't find the hockey game.
Now, since they can't have any of the good toys, Las Vegas wants an NHL team.
They had an ECHL team, the Wranglers. They folded two weeks ago because the owner couldn't find anywhere to play. The Wranglers never turned a profit.
Fewer than a quarter of Nevada residents were born in the state. It's a transient place, and no spot within it is more transient than Vegas. Once you get off the Strip, it's amongst the most depressing cities in the United States. It's hot as hell most of the year.
Big one-offs aside, there's nothing to suggest it's suited as a sports town. There's a great deal to suggest it isn't a good hockey town.
All Vegas has is money, and that's transient, too.
Given Nevada's gambling connections, none of the Big Three leagues wants to go anywhere near the city. The NHL – which operates in the southwestern United States as though it's a strip-mall purveyor of subprime mortgages – doesn't have those scruples.
They have a product to sell. Las Vegas is willing to buy it on consignment. If it ends up rotting in some empty barn, well, that's their problem.
On Tuesday, prospective team owner Bill Foley and his Hockey Vision Las Vegas LLC began the effort to prove their bona fides.
They've pointed fans toward the website: vegaswantshockey.com. A point of order – until a few months ago, Vegas had hockey. People there didn't want it.
People are being asked to fork over $150 to $900 (U.S.) to reserve season's tickets. There is as yet no team, but its new arena is already under construction. It will seat 17,000. Foley and his partners say they'll consider their high-stakes bake sale a success if they can rope in 10,000 customers.
This exercise already has official sanction. Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Las Vegas on Tuesday to help launch the ticket drive. He's married to this thing now, so it has to work.
To prove their authenticity, they scoured the scrubland for a local Canadian face to talk up the venture.
"The town's starving, absolutely starving, for a professional sports franchise," Toronto-born poker player Daniel Negreanu told the Canadian Press, adding that people in Las Vegas may not be hockey fans, but "they know how to put on a show. They're going to make it a spectacle."
First off, wasn't Alan Thicke available?
And how reassuring that this will be a spectacle designed to service the hockey needs of people who do not watch or care about hockey. Maybe they can name the team the Cirque du Soleils and put the rink in the middle of a wading pool surrounded by white tigers?
This is one of those sneaky stupid ideas. At first glance, you think, "That can't possibly work." After staring at it hard for a while, you think, "I was right the first time." Then, after the hucksters finish working you over, you think, "Maybe it's just counterintuitive enough to be a roaring success. I'm going to take out a third mortgage and invest." The idea of putting the NHL in another desert is so dumb, you begin to assume it must be smart.
Foley, Negreanu and the rest have everyone convinced that Vegas will embrace any sort of big-league franchise. At this point, it could be jai alai. They're not fussy.
Las Vegas just wants the rest of the United States to tell them they're ready for the rewards that come with being a world-class city (such as a hugely expensive white elephant with sad Canadians for tenants).
They want to be at least a Columbus. Maybe even a Nashville (minus the grace and history).
The truth – and Phoenix should already have proved it to us – is that people don't root for the team. They root first and foremost for the sport. If they have no connection to the sport, they won't care about the team.
You can always find a few rubes willing to be swept up in the initial pandemonium. In a nice hysteric touch, seats for the Las Vegas (Blanks) will be distributed not on a first-come, first-served basis, but depending on the season-ticket term (one, three, five and 10 seasons). Ten seasons sounds like a lot of bad hockey.
The cheapest seats will be $20 a game, which is good value based on air-conditioning alone. The arena will be full at first. That's easy to do.
After a few years, you can probably expect people to show up if the team is winning. Probably.
But once the new-car smell is out of the seats and the team is getting hammered night after night, no one will be there.
However many tickets they sell now, however many corporate dollars are backing this play, it's already doomed to mediocrity. They can keep this thing on financial life support forever, but why bother?
Because eventually, the weight of all these half-loved, unwatched American franchises is going to begin sinking the NHL.