Canadian poker star Daniel Negreanu knows a thing or two about odds. The Toronto native and lifelong hockey fan thinks Las Vegas has a 92.4 per cent chance of getting an NHL team.
Prospective owner Bill Foley and his company, Hockey Vision Las Vegas LLC, get to prove it beginning Tuesday when the VegasWantsHockey season-ticket drive gets under way. The goal is to get at least 10,000 full-season deposits to show there's significant fan interest in an NHL expansion team beginning play in the desert for the 2016-'17 season.
Negreanu is part of the "Founding 75," a group of locals helping sell NHL hockey to the people of Las Vegas and surrounding areas in Nevada. He's got his four season tickets reserved and has already sold plenty of others.
Convincing people to ante up hasn't required a hard sales pitch.
"The town's starving, absolutely starving, for a professional sports franchise," Negreanu said in a recent phone interview from Las Vegas. "I've found the support to be overwhelming. People that live here, they're dying for this."
If fans show the kind of commitment Foley and Negreanu expect during the ticket drive, it would answer the biggest question the league had about what commissioner Gary Bettman has called a "unique market." Las Vegas runs on tourism and has a transient population. There is no long-term hockey tradition to speak of and no track record of supporting a professional sports team.
With a well-funded and strong ownership group in place led by Foley and brothers Joe and Gavin Maloof and an arena that will seat 17,500 for hockey due to be completed by the spring of 2016, those issues are taken care of. The next step is to gauge fan interest.
"The rubber's got to hit the road," Foley said in a wide-ranging December interview. "We've got to prove what we can do."
Bettman is expected to be in Las Vegas on Tuesday as Hockey Vision Las Vegas kicks off the ticket drive.
Ticket prices are expected to be on par with the NHL average in two seasons. Several types are available, with deposits available at prices of $150, $300, $500 and $900 and with commitments of one, three, five or 10 years.
The 10 per cent deposits are binding but refundable if Las Vegas isn't awarded a team that begins play in 2016. Negreanu isn't too worried about that and believes the season-ticket drive could turn up 12,500 to 13,000 deposits.
"This is really what it's missing is something to cheer for as a group," Negreanu said. "Even those that are not hockey fans, Las Vegas, they know how to put on a show. They're going to make it a spectacle. It'll be more than just coming to a hockey game. It'll attract all kinds of different fans that maybe don't even really get the game yet."
The last NHL season-ticket drive came in 2011 when True North purchased the Atlanta Thrashers. The "Drive to 13,000" succeeded within an hour of starting and the new incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets began play that fall.
"Winnipeg is different on a host of fronts because they were really selling tickets and they already had a real season-ticket base," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said at a recent board of governors meeting.
Negreanu, a passionate Maple Leafs fan who is one of the biggest proponents of the VegasWantsHockey movement, said he'll spend the next two weeks promoting it. He'll star in some YouTube videos and use Twitter, Facebook and his reach in the poker world to drum up support.
"(I'll be) networking, making phone calls and going to the casinos, meeting some of the poker guys, collecting deposits from casino to casino," Negreanu said. "I'm super excited about it."
The NHL will be watching the ticket drive to see if there's a surge of support in the first couple weeks.
"We're going to know early on," Daly said during all-star weekend in Columbus. "It's not going to be one of those things where at the end of a 45-day period, 'Get your orders in so we can get an NHL franchise.' We're going to know early on whether this is something that people are embracing."
Bettman said in Columbus that if the ticket drive "shows a great deal of enthusiasm in two or three weeks, (Foley) and we will have a better sense of the market." The commissioner reiterated that no measure of success forces the NHL to expand to Las Vegas.
Getting well over 10,000 would be a good step toward that, said Negreanu, who hopes the next four to six weeks will show Las Vegas is a viable hockey town.
"I feel like you have to generate this kind of excitement to get people to put the deposits down," Negreanu said. "The one pitch I would tell people is we really need your help to get this here: If you really want to see a hockey team, we need your deposits."