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October 31, 2014

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Billy Johnson talks Boyd Gaming and Orleans: ‘If the Wranglers are not part of their plan, we respect that right’

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Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun

Former Las Vegas Wranglers goaltender Marc Magliarditi, left, his son and Wranglers General Manager Billy Johnson after being presented a plaque in recognition of his induction into the ECHL Hall of Fame in January 2013.

Kats With the Dish

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John Katsilometes and Tricia McCrone talk to Las Vegas Wranglers President Billy Johnson about his team's search for a new arena.

Wranglers vs. Bulls

Las Vegas Wranglers forward Geoff Irwin (61) prepares to fire the puck towards the San Francisco goal while being covered by Bulls defenseman Kalvin Sagert (6) during the first period of play at the Orleans Arena on Sunday afternoon. Launch slideshow »

Wranglers vs. Komets

Las Vegas Wranglers goaltender Travis Fullerton looks towards the back of the net as Fort Wayne Komets right winger Brandon Marino (13) roofs the puck for a third period goal to give the Komets a 4-1 lead. Launch slideshow »

World Pasta Day with the Wranglers

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I met up with Billy Johnson in a UNLV parking lot on Wednesday afternoon, and gosh if he didn’t show the wear and tear of trying to save a minor-league hockey team. His hair was a little tousled, maybe showing a few more streaks of gray than even two weeks earlier. His shirt was untucked, his gait limping and labored. Looped around his neck was a pair of white iPhone ear buds.

Johnson’s appearance reminded so much of a scene from one of his favorite movies starring one of his favorite actors, I couldn’t resist saying, “I don’t need you! I don’t need anything! …”

“… except this ashtray! And this paddle game!” he answered back. “And this remote control! And these matches! That’s all I need!”

Yeah, that’s where the Wranglers find-a-home odyssey has led us: Steve Martin’s famous walk-away rant from “The Jerk,” with Bernadette Peters representing a very cute version of Boyd Gaming. “Just go!” is the Boyd-ian message, and Johnson, as president of the Wranglers, is working tirelessly (even as he seems about to drop) in carrying the message to the team’s hyper-devoted fans in Las Vegas that there will be a Wranglers season in 2014-’15.

This is not an “if” question. It’s a how and where concern. I would bet that Las Vegas will be the home of pro hockey next year and far beyond.

The reason? Passion, drive, ingenuity and interconnectivity — all of the facets Johnson has displayed in 11 years in Las Vegas. The marketing wizard who originated the Billy Bird mascot for the triple-A Louisville Redbirds and later worked for legendary MLB executive Spec Richardson is not going to entertain even the concept of the Wranglers not playing in Las Vegas next season.

During this week’s “Kats With the Dish” show (which is why Johnson was at UNLV, as that is where the show is recorded each week), my co-host Tricia McCrone said to him, “I’ll play devil’s advocate here. Let’s say you don’t find a place in the next three weeks …”

“That’s a sentence I do not accept,” Johnson said, and he was not kidding. He’s been boosted by a wave of fan support from fans in Las Vegas. The Save the Las Vegas Wranglers Facebook page, posted by an anonymous supporter and outside the team’s organization, has drawn nearly 5,000 “likes” since Tuesday, when we broke the story of the team leaving the Orleans after this season.

Buoyed by that outpouring of support, Johnson and Wranglers owner Gary Jacobs have been in contact with resort and venue operators, any individuals who could stage at least one season of pro hockey.

Johnson talks of driving around Vegas with Jacobs in the days after being told this would be their last season at the Orleans and being stunned by the reception team officials were receiving from major players in Vegas. People they didn’t know, had never met, were eager to meet with the hockey reps and figure out a way to keep the team in town.

“Gary and I were saying, ‘Holy moly, this thing means something to people,’ ” Johnson said. “We have real momentum. Why stop it?”

Johnson has been scrambling because this is, really, sudden death for the city’s pro hockey team. The Wranglers were forced into an unexpected house-hunting expedition when Boyd issued its formal edict Dec. 14 that the team’s contract to play at Orleans Arena would not be renewed.

That gave the team less than a month to come up with a formal agreement to play at least one season in a venue in Las Vegas and produce a memo of understanding to ECHL officials by Jan. 20 that a deal was in place.

Before he began focusing on the pressurized process of finding a new home, Johnson explained to Wranglers fans just how the team wound up in this conundrum: On Dec. 6, Jacobs was told in a meeting at the Orleans that the team’s contract would not be renewed at end of this season (April 1, specifically). On Dec. 14, Jacobs received an email from hotel officials that the team was, in fact, done at Orleans Arena after 11 seasons.

Sounds like a very clean, and simple, severing of a business relationship. As news of the team’s ouster spilled out on New Year’s Eve, Boyd Gaming issued a statement saying: “We are in the final season under the Las Vegas Wranglers' current agreement with Orleans Arena. Unfortunately, we have been unable to agree to terms for a renewal that would keep the team at the arena after this season. We have greatly enjoyed our relationship with the Wranglers, and we wish them every success in the future.”

The team later posted an update statement, adding this version of events: “Unfortunately, after several months of discussions, we have been unable to agree to terms for a renewal that would keep the team at the arena after this season.”

Several months of negotiations? Johnson wasn’t letting that message go out unchecked. He quickly refuted that statement on the team’s Facebook page and again during our radio interview.

“The clarification is there was not a negotiation,” he said. “This implies there was an effort to come to terms. With that said, it’s very important to the 1.3 million people who have given us a lot of money to keep this product going that that statement requires a bit of a correction. ... It’s not that we didn’t come to an agreement.” (Asked to address the team’s claim that there were no negotiations, Boyd spokesman David Strow said only that the latest statement “is the extent of our comment on the matter at this time.”)

Eager to remain at the Orleans, Jacobs had arrived to the Dec. 6 meeting with a list of ideas of how to proceed at Orleans Arena and was summarily turned down. His idea for a one-year extension also was rejected, says Johnson, who is eager to “do a pivot,” as he puts it.

“We believe in this city, and this has nothing to do with what we think of Boyd Gaming,” he continued. “It has everything to do with what our fans and our sponsors think of us.”

Johnson is not planning on saying anything further about the fractured relationship with Boyd and the Orleans.

“At the end of the day, it’s their building,” he said. “If the Wranglers are not part of their plan, we respect that right.”

Johnson has made a lot of progress even in the past week. Most likely, the team will use a temporary facility in which to play its games next year.

“We’re looking for a transitional situation, and we would like to have those conversations right now in concert with a permanent solution and work in concert with one entity,” he said. “We know that is not always possible, but it might be a temporary facility where we can get 2,500 or 2,600 seats in. We just want to reset the clock for Jan. 21.”

Johnson is ready for a shift change, too, if that temporary strategy doesn’t fall into place in time for the Jan. 20 deadline.

“Scenario 2 for next season is we combine two, three facilities, and we play 10 games in one place and 12 in another place. We have a lot of people who have stepped up and said they are willing to do a situation like that,” said Johnson, who has looked into availability at the Thomas & Mack Center and MGM Grand Garden Arena as a permanent home for the Wranglers.

Then Johnson, a master promoter, added, “We promise to be more out of the box than Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night to solve this problem.”

That was a well-played reference to one of the team’s more famous, and infamous, promotions. It led to Johnson receiving some threatening voicemail in the hours after that game, but here we are recalling it four years later.

And it is similarly important to remember how Navin Johnson’s plight turned out in “The Jerk.” He did find a new home. A shack, really. It wasn’t so fancy, and maybe not built for the long haul, but it suited the purpose just fine.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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