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Wranglers being jettisoned from Orleans Arena after this season; future in Las Vegas at risk

Adam Hughesman

Courtesy Las Vegas Wranglers media services

The Las Vegas Wranglers Adam Hughesman celebrates with teammates on the bench after scoring a second-period goal against the host Colorado Eagles Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013

Updated Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 | 7:35 p.m.

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 »

World Pasta Day with the Wranglers

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A fan wearing a Mike Madill jersey sits in the audience as Madill (center) fields questions with Wranglers team owner Gary Jacobs, left, and general manager Billy Johnson during a press conference announcing Madill being appointed head coach in April 2013.

Billy Johnson felt something was askew when the Orleans hotel-casino issued a list of the top 10 events at the Orleans Arena in the venue’s 10-year history, and for that list the Las Vegas Wranglers were benched.

“There was no listing of the Wranglers, at all,” Johnson, the ECHL hockey team’s president during that span, said in a phone conversation today. “We’ve brought 1.3 million people through the doors since we’ve been here, with a high-quality product. I should have known then …”

Johnson didn’t finish off that sentence, but it would end with: The Wranglers will not play at Orleans Arena next season. The finale of the team’s decade-long residency falls on an apt date for the team that specializes in such zany promotions as the Midnight Circus and Regrettable Tattoo Night: April Fool’s Day, against the Bakersfield Condors.

Johnson and Wranglers owner Gary Jacobs were hoping to extend the team’s existing contract with the Orleans, owned by Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas. But on Dec. 6, in a meeting with hotel officials at the Orleans, Jacobs was informed the company had no intention of once more renewing the agreement. Jacobs asked for a one-year extension, to allow the team to pursue a new home for the 2015-16 season, and was also turned down.

“They said we were not financially viable,” said Johnson, who added that the signage around the Orleans Arena promoting the team had been stripped from the property in the early summer. “But they didn’t tell us formally until just before the holiday season.”

David Strow, a spokesman for Boyd Gaming and the Orleans, said, "We are in the final season under the Las Vegas Wranglers' current agreement with the 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," he said.

The official notice arrived in an email from Orleans General Manager Tony Taubel to Jacobs on Dec. 14. That left Jacobs and Johnson with scant time to meet an ECHL-enforced deadline of Jan. 20 to ensure the team will actually have secured home ice for the 2014-15 season. If the Wranglers’ officials do not submit a memorandum of understanding, specifying that the team is in serious contract talks with a suitable venue operator in Las Vegas, by that date, the team will not play next season.

But Johnson says the Wranglers’ brand is stronger around the Las Vegas market than even he realized, and he and Jacobs (who is firmly committed to keeping the team in the city) have had several positive meetings with Las Vegas resort operators, building managers, sponsors, and assorted representatives who could make a new deal in time to meet the ECHL deadline.

Johnson says the team’s annual attendance percentage has grown “by double digits” since Jacobs took over before the 2010 season, and this year is averaging 4,800 to 5,000 fans per game. Group sales figures are a little more than 1,300 per game. “Last year, we didn’t get 1,300 in group sales for any single game until after Jan. 1, and now that’s our average,” Johnson said. “We are doing something right.”

The team debuted at the Orleans in 2003 and is currently one of two professional franchises playing its home games in Las Vegas (the 51s of the Pacific Coast League being the other). Even with a strong, and almost uniformly local, fan base, Johnson has complained about treatment and support from the hotel. He’s been known to set a stopwatch on customers attempting to be served at an Orleans Arena concession stand, and says, “It shouldn’t take our fans 22 minutes to buy a single beer.”

But in a sport where timing is crucial, it’s Jacobs, Johnson, and Las Vegas’ pro hockey team that are scrambling against the clock.

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