STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Tuesday, May 20, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
In professional hockey, as in life, sometimes you just need to stop the clock.
That is the case for the Las Vegas Wranglers, whose odyssey to secure a home venue for the 2014-'15 season has led to a “voluntary suspension” of operations for the upcoming ECHL season. This decision is to ensure that the team will return to competition in Las Vegas for the 2015-'16 ECHL campaign.
“Everybody has been keenly aware that we really ran out of time to make this happen weeks and weeks ago,” Wranglers President Billy Johnson said today ahead of a statement issued today that the team would suspend play for one year so it could return in 2015.
Informed by Boyd Gaming officials in mid-December that their lease at Orleans Arena, their home ice since opening in Las Vegas in 2003, would not be renewed for next season, the Wranglers had entered into an agreement in February to build a facility on the Plaza pool deck as its new home downtown. The plan was for the team to play in a steel-reinforced, fabric-covered tent that would seat 3,500 to 4,000 fans on the hotel’s fifth floor between its two towers.
Those plans unraveled May 7 when Plaza officials and Johnson said that the effort proved too costly for the franchise to fund. The ECHL had originally set a deadline of Jan. 20 (which was extended by three weeks) to forge a backup plan for the team to secure a new venue in time for the upcoming season. But finally, last week, both sides drew back to allow ample time for team owner Gary Jacobs and Johnson to furnish a suitable blueprint for a new venue.
ECHL officials were presented the team’s proposal for its 2015-’16 home and, on Monday, approved the concept. It is likely the facility will be in the 4,250-seat range, similar to what was planned at the Plaza.
“I’m thrilled that we got as close as we did to making a deal in a very tight time frame,” Johnson said. “But, on the other hand, I wish we had gotten it done. We were close enough to touch it, but there comes a point when you have to do what’s responsible, and that’s where we are now.
“The key thing to know is we gave the league a plan for 2015 — they liked it and gave us the thumbs up to proceed. This extension gives us a lot of time to get this right.”
Jacobs, Johnson and two team employees will be on board through the upcoming months to work on team matters. Left to secure are financing (the team had originally said it would commit $4 million to the Plaza facility), a site, lease terms, structural issues and a plan for how to again open up ticket sales.
Those holdovers from the 2013-’14 season at Orleans Arena will still hold priority over new requests, and Johnson says the goal is to hold those prices at the levels of last season (single-game tickets are $20 to $40). The team plans to return to a full staff of 16 to 24 employees between November and the end of the year, Johnson said.
Johnson has consistently rejected questions about where the team will or won’t play its home games when it does return to the ice. The Plaza option seems played out, and a return to Orleans Arena is highly unlikely, as Boyd made it clear that it was finished doing business with the Wranglers in December. South Point, with its arena and equestrian center, has never shown interest.
“There is a reason things aren’t given public scrutiny, and I simply need time to make sure that we and our partners have done due diligence to make sure a deal is done properly,” Johnson said. “Quite frankly, to put that information out to the public, even to our fans, would jeopardize the very thing they are trying to save. … I am under a confidentiality agreement for a reason.”
As it is, the league remains sated and patient as the Wranglers go dark. Johnson has lived this process before.
“It’s 2003 all over again,” he said, referring to the team’s opening season at Orleans Arena. “We’re like any start-up franchise, except we have a brand already established and a lot of ticket holders already in place.”
When asked if he wanted to put any additional information to the public, Johnson said, “Well, we are not moving the team to San Diego (Jacobs’ home, which was rumored to be the new home city of the team as it began seeking a new venue), and we’re not milking a story to sell tickets.
“There is no other reason for us to be pursuing a deal to play in Las Vegas in 2015 other than we are going to play in Las Vegas in 2015.”