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Hockey

Knights plan to go all in from the start

The new Las Vegas franchise has been given much better terms than previous NHL expansion teams and, in an attempt to build a hockey following in the booming Nevada metropolis, GM George McPhee sounds determined to be competitive right from the opening faceoff

A crowd gathers at the T-Mobile Arena in November 2016 for the announcement that the Las Vegas NHL franchise would be named the Golden Knights. Vegas meets commissioner Gary Bettman’s trinity of NHL needs: a state-of-the-art arena, a moneybags owner and a location in the U.S. Southwest, bringing greater geographic balance to the league’s conferences.

There are two sides to Las Vegas, and George McPhee – a resident of the city since September and an occasional visitor for decades – is getting to know both.

McPhee is the general manager of the NHL's newest team, the Vegas Golden Knights, who will begin playing this fall in the T-Mobile Arena, situated at the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard, a lights-flashing, thunder-rolling block of real estate colloquially known as the Strip.

There are hotels – six of the 10 largest in the world, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. There are casinos – raking in billions of dollars annually as gamblers flock to the place the Rat Pack once called home. The Strip is the most visible manifestation of Las Vegas, what the ads feature when they promise you that "whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

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Read more: How Canada's teams could fare in the 2017 NHL expansion draft

But McPhee is also getting acquainted with the other side – the Las Vegas Valley, which includes Summerlin, where the Golden Knights are building their practice facility, plus Henderson and North Las Vegas. Together, the metropolitan area is home to roughly 2.5 million people.

Developing an appreciation for hockey in that population will ultimately determine whatever success Vegas may have as an NHL expansion franchise.

Franchise owner William Foley promised his novice fan base a championship within eight years, then shortened the time frame to six – a goal that would be practically impossible to meet even if there were a Connor McDavid or an Auston Matthews available in the NHL entry draft, which there isn't.

But McPhee is an optimist. He consulted with former NHL general managers Bob Clarke and Doug Risebrough about what they did to get their expansion franchises – the Florida Panthers and the Minnesota Wild, respectively – off to competitive starts.

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee speaks during a news conference in Las Vegas.

McPhee, a former Washington Capitals general manager who earned a business degree from Bowling Green State University and a law degree from Rutgers, freely acknowledges that the hand he is being dealt is far superior to the ones Clarke or Risebrough received.

This is the first time the NHL didn't just grab the expansion cheque – in this case, a record $500-million (U.S.) – and leave the new team with table scraps.

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As a result, he is trying to do something no expansion team has ever done: Win right out of the gate.

"They've done their best to make this the best expansion draft ever," McPhee said. "Our job is not to let them down, and [to] make this work."

Magic acts are popular in Vegas, so perhaps McPhee can conjure up the hockey equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat and make his team competitive right away.

He said that will be critical to establishing a foothold in the market, noting: "That's how we'll keep interest up in the town – and how we're going to be able to develop a team. If we're losing 6-1 every night, it's hard to develop players. You're going to develop a lot better if you're in a 2-1 or a 5-4 game. Being able to compete will expedite the development process."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has long been fascinated by Las Vegas as a market to flesh out the league's U.S. footprint. According to Bettman, Vegas meets the trinity of NHL needs: fabulous, state-of-the-art building; a moneybags owner in Foley; and a location in the U.S. Southwest that brings greater geographic balance to the league's two conferences.

"This is something that a major market of two million-plus people wants," Bettman said. "The market is ready, and apparently the NFL thinks the market is ready, too."

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Yes, the NFL. Nine months after Vegas received its hockey franchise, the NFL decided to move in too, approving the transfer of the Oakland Raiders to the Nevada city.

The worry is that competition from the Raiders will siphon off too many of the corporate dollars that might have gravitated toward the Golden Knights, thus throwing a wrinkle into Bettman's grand plan.

Pyrotechnics and streamers are fired into the air as the Vegas Golden Knights is announced as the name for the Las Vegas NHL franchise at T-Mobile Arena on November 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The team will begin play in the 2017-18 season. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Among U.S. cities with both professional football and hockey teams, Las Vegas most closely resembles Nashville, where the Predators of the NHL have built a loyal fan base despite competition from the NFL's Tennessee Titans. Like Las Vegas, Nashville is also an entertainment hub, though the focus is on country music, not gambling. And like Vegas, Nashville's NHL team hired a smart, experienced general manager in David Poile to build the team using a fundamental draft-and-develop philosophy.

But it has been a slow process, with the Predators advancing to the Stanley Cup final this spring for the first time in the franchise's two-decade history.

"I would say it's no different than growing any business," Poile said. "You're moving into a new market and you try to get your brand out there, and that's what we've been doing for almost 20 years. The city's just on fire now. The New York Times recently did an article calling Nashville the 'It' city. It just feels as if everything's all lining up – but it took a lot of time."

As a tourist destination, Las Vegas is unique because of its heavy dependence on the gambling industry, which historically has had an uneasy relationship with professional sports leagues.

Many people believe the NFL would not be the entertainment entity it is if people weren't allowed to give 6 1/2 points and wager on the Green Bay Packers.

NHL players Don Gallinger and Billy Taylor had their careers cut short in 1948 when they were banned for gambling. Jaromir Jagr, in his wild-child days, made Vegas his home away from home. Las Vegas freely exploits its reputation as Sin City.

Does that make drafting players with impeccable character – less likely to stray or get tempted by Vegas sideshows – more important for McPhee's team? After all, many people go to Vegas with partying on their minds.

"I think it may be party time for friends and family and for visiting fans from out of town," McPhee said. "But there's too much at stake for players nowadays. They're all so dedicated. … We don't anticipate any issues there. When you think about it, there's a casino within 10 miles of every team in this league. You can do it anywhere. You can go out on the town anywhere – Toronto, New York, L.A., Miami. They're all great places, and you can have fun there too."

McPhee's real estate broker advised him to buy a home with extra bedrooms because he would have a steady stream of visitors dropping in over the course of the hockey season. McPhee compared the Strip to Times Square in New York, saying: "It's the sort of place where, if you want to see an A-list entertainer, you can go do it," he said. "But most of the time, the hockey people are going to be enjoying the suburbs. I think they're the best-kept secret in the U.S.

"Las Vegas is Scottsdale, Ariz., with a Strip."

Calgary Flames defenceman Deryk Engelland, who made Las Vegas his off-season home after playing for its ECHL team earlier in his career, said McPhee's comparison is accurate. He said people cannot appreciate how large a metropolitan centre Vegas has become unless they venture off the Strip.

"It's a nice, big, clean city," he said. "The weather's great. I don't mind the heat in the summer. I've got a lot of good friends there. I couldn't picture myself in too many other places. There are a lot of people from out of state who've moved there, including a lot of Canadians. So I think with that, it'll bring a little more knowledge of the game to the city and help it grow a lot quicker."

He believes the biggest single reason the Vegas franchise will succeed is the arena's central location, making it readily accessible to visitors and residents alike.

"If you think back to Phoenix, when the [Coyotes] played closer to downtown, they sold out games a lot more often than they do now," Engelland said. "When Florida played in Miami, they sold out, too. So it's important the arena is right there on the Strip. I think they've sold 14,000-plus season tickets – and all the other tickets will be eaten by people who figure: If your team is going to play in Vegas, why not make a trip out of it and see your team and then stay over for a few extra days?

"I think it'll do well. The city is just dying for some entertainment outside of the shows on the Strip."

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee listens during a news conference in Las Vegas, on April 13, 2017.

Significantly, McPhee is presiding over the first expansion draft of the NHL's salary-cap era, which could create massive trading opportunities with teams anxious to dump overpriced players. You can expect to see a long list of side deals between McPhee and his managerial peers as they seek to protect players they don't want to lose.

"We've got a chance to get some real good leadership on the club," McPhee said. "That's vital, because most young players don't know how to become a pro. Someone has to teach them – what to do on the ice and what to do off the ice – and those kinds of players are available."

In the end, Vegas's long-term success will depend on its ability to build a foundation through the entry draft, just as the Predators did. Vegas went into April's draft lottery with the third-best chance to move into the No. 1 pick. Instead, the Golden Knights fell back and will draft sixth over all in the first round.

It means the player they select first will almost certainly need two years to become NHL ready. The rest of the prospects they choose – this year, next year, the year after – will take time to develop as well. That is a step they cannot fast-forward past, no matter how generous their expansion terms.

In the meantime, the Knights are immersed in doing mock drafts, trying to anticipate what gems will be made available. They imagine there will be quality goaltending and good defensive options. Scoring could be more problematic.

"The picture changes with every draft we do," McPhee said. "It's an evolving process. Players improve. Players decline. Trades are made. We're not going to know until we get into our window, and then we're going to get lists, but it could be a completely different universe. We'll see what's in there."

A quarter of a century ago, McPhee made his first visit to Vegas. He was working for the Vancouver Canucks, as the team's vice-president of hockey operations, when Pat Quinn took the team there during a break in the schedule as a bonding exercise.

McPhee said he could never have imagined the day he would return as the first general manager of an NHL team in Las Vegas. All he hoped for was the chance to interview for the job.

Now, though, "I have no doubts, after spending time in Vegas, that it can succeed – and we can have a very successful franchise," he said. "We said it early on: If we do our jobs, we have a chance to win here. And that's all you can hope for as a manager – that you have a chance to win if you do your job."

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