Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016 | 2 a.m.
In an office building in suburban Las Vegas, an NHL franchise is taking shape.
It has been five months since the NHL awarded Las Vegas an expansion team on June 22. It will be about 11 more months before the team plays its first regular-season game.
But as the NHL’s other 30 teams settle into the rhythms of a long season, the Las Vegas franchise, the NHL’s first expansion team since the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild were added in 2000, is building its staff and expanding its local footprint.
The team checked a big item off its to-do list Tuesday night, unveiling its name, the Vegas Golden Knights, and its blue, black and gold logo in a ceremony outside the new T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip, where the team will play.
“The knight never gives up, never gives in, always advances, never retreats,” said Bill Foley, the team’s majority owner. “And that’s what our team is going to be.”
Foley, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, had hoped to call the team the Black Knights but encountered resistance, including some from West Point.
In an interview this month, Foley said that he had settled on a name by the end of August and that team representatives had been working with Adidas on a logo since mid-July. It was not ready until late October.
“Everyone has an opinion, I can tell you that,” Foley said. “I was trying to do consensus-building for a while; then I stopped.”
If people do not like the name, he added, “it’s going to be on me.”
Foley at least has some company in decision-making now. After the Las Vegas ownership group, which includes the Maloof family, the former owners of the Sacramento Kings, received permission from the NHL to conduct a season-ticket drive in December 2014 to gauge interest, Foley worked with a small group of advisers and ticket representatives.
Now Foley has cleared out a floor in an office building in Summerlin, a suburb 15 miles from the Strip, for his growing staff, which he described as around 20 “poor people living in little cubes.”
He said he had not wanted to spend money or risk capital before the team was awarded, so the past five months have been a sprint.
The first major hire was that of general manager George McPhee, who was the Washington Capitals’ general manager from 1997 to 2014. After assuming his position in July, he put together a hockey operations staff of nearly 40 people, including scouts, video specialists and an analytics department, in 60 days.
The franchise, which paid a $500 million expansion fee, has just started building its business side. Kerry Bubolz, a longtime executive with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was named team president Oct. 3. A chief marketing officer, Nehme E. Abouzeid, came aboard Nov. 7.
The infrastructure of Las Vegas’ first major professional sports team also is becoming more visible. The ice sheet was installed at T-Mobile Arena on July 30 — a 110-degree day. In early October, the arena, which seats 17,368, hosted a fan festival and its first two NHL games, preseason contests featuring the Los Angeles Kings.
In October, the team broke ground on a practice center in downtown Summerlin that is expected to be completed in August in time for training camp.
Todd Pollock, the vice president for ticketing, and his staff spent most of the past six weeks trying to convert the nearly 16,000 deposits from the ticket drive into actual season-ticket holders, and managing online seat selection.
“Phones are ringing nonstop,” he said.
For a brief period, Pollock constituted the team’s entire ticket sales staff. Pollock, who has worked for the Los Angeles Kings and the San Francisco 49ers, has been part of the operation since Foley obtained approval from the NHL for the ticket drive.
“It’s an education process for some of them,” Pollock said of Las Vegas residents. “They love hockey. They just don’t know much about it.”
The fans who gathered Tuesday night knew enough to boo Commissioner Gary Bettman, leading him to say it proved Las Vegas had become a real NHL city.
Pollock’s ticket-sales staff has grown to 10 people. They have come a long way from cold-calling bars, restaurants and community centers to “invite themselves over” to sell residents on the team, Pollock said.
Foley said that sometimes only 15 to 20 people would show up at a bar. But when 4,000 deposits were made on the first day of the drive, Foley said he thought, “Wow, people really want this.”
The team converted a strong majority of deposits into season tickets, selling about 13,800, Foley said.
“Las Vegas is so ready to have its own thing other than the Strip,” he said.
While he acknowledged that his team may have to share the city with the Oakland Raiders after they recently reached a stadium deal with the state, Foley noted that the Raiders are not owned by local residents and come with an existing fan base.
While others try to build a fan base, McPhee is trying to build a team, with the expansion draft scheduled for June 17-20 and the amateur draft three days later.
He expects to spend the next several months dividing time between Las Vegas and the road, getting his staff together once a month to review nuts and bolts.
McPhee’s analytics group is pouring over statistics of every professional team and every minor league team to rate players and build a database. His scouts are watching 25 games a night, canvassing all the NHL teams and determining the best prospects in the amateur ranks.
“We do feel like we are in a good rhythm right now,” McPhee said.
McPhee and his staff plan to do a mock expansion draft each month after doing their first in November, which produced questions for the league about the rules.
With no franchise players expected to be available in the expansion draft, McPhee said, the goal was to build a foundation. The entry draft is “where we’re going to have to hit home runs,” he added.
Saying he wanted to build the team the right way, McPhee has so far met with David Poile, who built the 1998-99 Nashville Predators, and Doug Risebrough, the first general manager of the Wild.
“The appeal of an expansion franchise is not having to dig out from problems on your arrival,” McPhee said. “You set the course immediately.”
Expansion team or not, Las Vegas or not, the goal is the same.
“It’s pretty simple: You have to win, whether in a traditional or nontraditional market,” McPhee said, before ticking off the warm-weather teams that have recently won the Stanley Cup, like Los Angeles, Anaheim and Tampa Bay. “We’re here to win.”
Foley vowed Tuesday night that the Golden Knights would win a Stanley Cup within six years, but historically, expansion teams have not won much in their early years. Of the nine NHL expansion teams since 1991, only the 1993-94 Florida Panthers (33-34-17) had a point percentage that was even close to .500 in their first season.
The NHL also wants the Las Vegas team to be competitive right away and has tried to create more favorable expansion draft rules. The Las Vegas franchise must select one player from each of the 30 existing teams, which can protect fewer players than in the previous expansion draft in 2000.
“It doesn’t feel like pressure; it feels like an opportunity,” McPhee said. “We’re going to get a better base than any expansion team has had.”
Finding that base is still months away. The name and the logo are settled, although after several technical glitches during the name unveiling, Foley promised, “We won’t screw up the first game the way we screwed up the video.”
But next on the team’s to-do list is completing sponsorship deals, negotiating TV rights and selling a bunch of new Golden Knights gear.
“The next 11 months is going to go quick,” Foley said.