By Barry M. Bloom
LAS VEGAS -- The National Hockey League now has the template for all future expansion franchises, and it's called the Vegas Golden Knights.
Before the franchise was even officially granted, the still unnamed team went into the market and gathered 16,000 season-ticket applicants, who each laid down a $100 deposit. That showed the depth of interest in the sport.
The procedure is being replicated again in Seattle and might even be a harbinger of things to come in San Diego, if similar conditions develop there in the next few years: A new arena, a billion-dollar owner and excitement from fans to sustain the product for the long term.
"It's certainly a good blueprint," said VGK general manager George McPhee before his team went out on Sunday night and defeated the Rangers, 2-1, in front of the largest crowd so far at T-Mobile Arena, 18,234. "The league did a good job with the rules and we worked hard to put a competitive team on the ice, and so far, we've got it. It's been working at the gate and on television."
In the end, the newly minted Knights sold 14,000 season tickets for their inaugural season. Each name of a season ticket holder was inscribed on the white surface below the sheet of ice. What they're seeing was not what anybody expected.
Exactly halfway through the season at 41 games, the Knights lead the Western Conference with 29 wins and 60 points. They are eying the best record ever for an expansion team in any sport.
The presentation at what they have nicknamed "The Fortress" -- replete with golden-helmeted Knights and a castle entrance high in one end -- is part Vegas casino floor show and 21st century value-added sport. Cirque du Hockey. The only thing missing is a moat.
"The civic pride in this town has been incredible," McPhee said. "And the support has been amazing. They wanted a pro team for a long time and they finally got one. They've backed up their interest in it and supported the team very well."
The excitement in the building on Sunday was palatable. Original Six teams like the Rangers travel well and their fans were in and around the building just off the Las Vegas strip in blue jerseys of all shapes and sizes. Names on the back ranged from Messier to Gretzky to Giacomin to Avery to Callahan to Leetch, and on the current team McDonagh, Zuccarello and Lundqvist, just to name a scant few. The Rangers have a rich, if not ignominious, history, and Vegas fans, wearing their own colors, are just building theirs.
"It's a great atmosphere," Rangers president Glen Sather said. "It's a great opportunity for those guys who are playing hard. It bodes well for expansion elsewhere. It's good for the league."
It was a playoff atmosphere and a tight game, won with 11:02 to go when William Karlsson took a nifty cross-ice pass from Reilly Smith and tucked the puck into the empty side of the Rangers' net. At the other end, veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made one spectacular save after another to hold the advantage.
The Rangers pressed to the very last split second, and when the final buzzer sounded, the vociferous crowd reacted with a sense of elation and relief. The Knights have the best home record in the NHL at 18-2-1, and any visitor can easily see why. Their fans are indeed the seventh man on the ice.
"It's unbelievable, outstanding," said Gerard Gallant, the Knights coach, who was named Sunday to head the Western Conference team in the upcoming All-Star game. "I was told that the crowd was the biggest of the season so far, and you could hear it. The noise is so loud you can barely hear the referee blow the whistle. It affects our team in a positive way. There's no doubt about that. When you have a crowd that's excited all the time for your team it feels like an extra player out there."
Of course, what's happening in Vegas may work only in Vegas, where the first pro team in town was going to be the heartthrob. The NFL's Raiders are soon to follow.
The league asked for a $500 million expansion fee and, with the new building, chairman Bill Foley and his group were glad to spend it. In the wake of approved plans to rebuild the downtown Key Arena for the third time, the NHL has conditionally awarded Seattle a franchise based on the community's ability to sell season tickets. The entrance fee has risen to $650 million.
That remains to be seen in a market with successful franchises in baseball, football and soccer -- a market that lost the NBA's Sonics to Oklahoma City in an arena conundrum.
In San Diego, the winter sports market is wide open with the departure of the Chargers to Los Angeles. There's talk of a new arena being built downtown in the East Village neighborhood just east of Petco Park.
There's a money man now in Joseph Tsai, co-chairman of the Alibaba Group, who's listed by Forbes as worth nearly $9 billion. Later this year, Tsai is placing a team earmarked for a new Lacrosse League in the old arena now called the Valley View Casino Center. He could be just the guy to get this all done.
Every iteration of the minor league San Diego Gulls has been a success, including the current AHL affiliate of the Ducks, averaging nearly 10,000 a game in the old arena. If the NHL isn't watching, it should be.
Meanwhile, none of this matters to McPhee, who built the best team in the NHL through an expansion draft, snagging Fleury from the Penguins with the 29th pick. You have to have good goaltending.
"Any more expansion is for the league to talk about right now," he said. "We're just trying to win hockey games."
They've won a lot of them. So far, so good.
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Barry M. Bloom has covered professional sports since 1976 and is a national reporter for MLB.com. He grew up as an Original Six Rangers fan in New York and was there for the first expansion to Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Oakland in 1967-68. Follow him on Twitter @boomskie. His blog is Boomskie on Baseball.