STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 2 a.m.
John Katsilometes and Tricia McCrone talk to Billy Johnson for an update on the Las Vegas Wrangler's search for a new home.
A ticket office employee at the Orleans Arena held up a sign to inform Las Vegas Wranglers hockey fans no tickets remained.
The parking lot adjacent to the arena was so crowded vehicles couldn’t enter. When they did, there were no open spots on the first level.
Near the escalators leading into the arena, it was so crowded it took five minutes for fans to make their way to the front of the line. Only those with tickets were allowed into the concourse to meet ticket takers.
Yes, Las Vegans love their hockey team. Friday, they made a statement: Save the Wranglers.
It was the Wranglers' first game on their home ice since it was announced in late-December that Boyd Gaming wouldn’t renew its lease with the franchise at the Orleans Arena when it expires at the end of the season, putting hockey’s future in Las Vegas in jeopardy.
The Wranglers scored twice in the first period on their way to a 5-2 victory against Ontario. It was just their 11th win in 39 games this season. But on this night, the outcome was secondary.
This night was all about saving hockey in Las Vegas, becoming one big public display of support for a team fans are clearly passionate about. The ECHL gave the Wranglers a two-week extension on a Jan. 20 deadline to find a new home, meaning an announcement on the franchise’s fate should come by Wednesday.
“It is just reasonable fun,” said Warren Pitt, who wore a Wranglers jersey full of player autographs to Friday’s game. “It’s always exciting. There is always something going on, or someone getting hit out there all of the time. It’s a good action sport with good crowds.”
Wranglers President Billy Johnson has three options/business models for next season. While some speculate they’ll play at an MGM Resorts property or a tent set up at Silverton, Johnson isn’t able to comment on specifics because of ongoing negotiations.
What he could comment on was Friday’s turnout, which was one of the best in the franchise’s 11-year history with 7,786 in attendance. They even sold standing room only tickets to accommodate the walk-up traffic.
After long days and nights of working on finding a new home, Johnson finally could enjoy hockey for three hours.
“I have never had a doubt,” he said of the franchise’s future. “You don’t have time to have a doubt. You have (a problem) to solve. You solve it.”
The support has been overwhelming on social media with fans on Twitter using the hashtag #mytownmyteam. The Wranglers’ Facebook page has 8,200 likes and was home to a campaign urging fans to attend Friday’s game in a sign of solidarity. A near-capacity crowd is also expected Saturday.
The fans made a difference, giving the players momentum for a dominating performance. In a season of struggles on the ice, this was easily the Wranglers’ best effort.
With 4:10 left in the first period, the Wranglers’ left wing Adam Huxley fought with an Ontario player. He won the fight to send the fans into an enthusiastic cheer — it was like Huxley took out fans’ frustrations with each punch. Las Vegas proceeded to go on the power play, scoring seconds later for a 2-0 advantage.
Minutes later, during the intermission after the first period, the mood took a tender turn when the Wranglers showed a video tribute featuring some of the letters of support the team's staff has received from fans. Set to sentimental music and even featuring a message from the Alaska Aces, Las Vegas' biggest rival, the presentation caused a few fans to tear up.
“This team means a lot to the people of Las Vegas,” Pitt said. “I’m hoping they get something sorted out by the deadline.”
Chad Nehring scored in the third period for the Wranglers’ fifth goal, which also gave fans free tacos. Whether it’s a free taco or the franchise’s other wacky promotions such as its Midnight Game or Regrettable Tattoo Night, they’ve made their mark in Las Vegas.
Johnson always knew his team was popular with fans. He didn’t realize how much until they were faced with adversity.
“You realize everything you have been doing for the past 11 years people have been paying attention to,” he said. “We knew it was good, we just didn’t realize how good.”
He hopes to give them another great 11 years.