When the Vegas Golden Knights take to the ice for their inaugural NHL season later this year, it will be unlike any hockey experience Las Vegas has ever seen. And in some ways, that will be a shame.
The NHL might be new to Las Vegas, but hockey has a decades-long history in the city. No fewer than eight professional and semi-pro teams called Vegas home in the 50 years preceding the incoming NHL iteration, and some proved just as freewheeling and glitzy as the city they represented.
No team exemplified the joie de verve of Las Vegas more than the Wranglers of the ECHL, who played at the Orleans Arena from 2003-14. The Wranglers were arguably the most successful franchise to call Las Vegas home, and held that distinction both on an off the ice, perhaps known best for its imaginative, if not irreverent, promotional themes. When you promote a game to coincide with the Rapture, you’re operating on another level.
More on that later. Las Vegas’ journey to the NHL actually began in 1968, when a semi-professional team called the Las Vegas Gamblers debuted in the regionally-specific California-Nevada Hockey League, playing at the International Ice Palace. While the Gamblers only existed for three seasons, the league it played in would endure, transitioning to the Pacific Southwest Hockey League before establishing itself as the West Coast Hockey League, which existed for decades before becoming part of the expanded ECHL in the mid-1990s.
A second semi-professional team replaced the Gamblers in 1971, with the Las Vegas Outlaws taking the ice for two seasons. However brief, the Outlaws left a mark in the city, going 29-8-4 in the first of two seasons for one of the best single-season records among any of the Las Vegas franchises.
But when the Outlaws skipped town, the city would go two decades without a pro hockey presence. It would take an appearance by the Great One in 1991 to infuse new life into Vegas ice.
While the Winter Classic has become an annual tradition in the NHL, it was nothing more than a preseason promotional gimmick in the early 1990s. And Las Vegas certainly didn’t shy away from hosting such a spectacle, welcoming the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings for an exhibition game on an outdoor rink at Caesars Palace before a crowd of 13,007. Despite 85-degree temperatures, the game played on and Wayne Gretzky scored for the Kings in a 5-2 victory.
Within two years, as the NHL began its Southwestern migration, hockey returned to Las Vegas with the Thunder of the IHL. While the Wranglers would later garner much fanfare, it was the Thunder that truly put Las Vegas on the hockey map. Playing its games at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, the Thunder drew an average of more than 8,000 fans in a debut 1993-94 campaign, and flourished in its six seasons, with several future NHL stars dotting its roster, including Alexei Yashin, Radek Bonk and Curtis Joseph.
The Thunder were not just some Vegas side show. The team won a pair of division titles, in 1994 and ’96, reached the IHL conference finals twice, in ‘95 and ’96, and had a development deal with the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL.
But when UNLV refused to negotiate a lease extension with the Thunder after the 1999 season, the team was left without a place to play and folded. But the Thunder’s six-year run left an indelible impression and the franchise is credited with sparking initial interest in bringing an NHL franchise to the city.
Toward that end, the NHL began hosting an exhibition series between the LA Kings and the Colorado Avalanche in Las Vegas called “Frozen Fury.” The annual game, which continues to this day, began in 1997 and was played at the MGM Grand Garden through 2015. In 2016, the series moved to the T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights will play their home games.
Throughout the 1990s, several teams attempted to join the Las Vegas hockey landscape alongside the Thunder, but proved one-year wonders. The Las Vegas Aces played one season (1994-95) in the Pacific Southwest League, while the Las Vegas Ice Dice never actually made it to the ice in 1995.
Two summer roller hockey franchises emerged in 1993 and 1998, playing in a Roller Hockey International league that featured celebrity owners, including Mark Messier and Tony Danza. The Las Vegas Flash played one season in 1993-94 and were coached by “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympian Ken Morrow. The Las Vegas Coyotes rolled for one year, in 1998-99.
And then, there were the Wranglers. Debuting in 2003, the Wranglers had the longest tenure of any Las Vegas team, concluding their run in 2014. In 11 seasons, the Wranglers featured 19 NHL-bound players and had 11 winning seasons. But the Wranglers will always be remembered for their imaginative promotions.
The team hosted Rapture Night on October 21, 2011. That was the date predicted by doomsayer Harold Camping as the last night on Earth, and the Wranglers weren’t going out without a party. The date was also the night of the Wranglers’ season-opener, and that’s all team COO Billy Johnson needed.
“This is a low-risk proposition,” Johnson famously said. “If it doesn’t go as planned, it’s not the end of the world.”
The team went all out, even giving away T-shirts.
“Nothing says Rapture like a T-shirt night.” Johnson said.
The Wranglers also hosted “Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night” in 2006, giving out orange hunting vests to patrons that read, “Don’t Shoot, I’m Human!” in homage to the Vice President’s infamous hunting accident.
Then there were the prison uniforms the team wore on Rod Blagojevich Night, in tribute to the disgraced former Illinois governor who faced jail time for influence peddling. “Over 18” night featured uniform tops that made the players look like a scene out of “Magic Mike.”
And then there was the annual Midnight game that started … you guessed it … at midnight, so that local casino workers who normally were on shift during Wrangler games could see the team play.
The Wranglers finally went the way of all the other Las Vegas hockey franchises, giving way to the Golden Knights, as the Las Vegas dream of the big leagues was finally realized with the NHL.
Rapture Night? Call it heaven on ice.
This article first appeared in the Arena Digest weekly newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Sign up here for a free subscription!