Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 | 2 a.m.
UNLV hockey captain Cody Williams remembers a few years ago when the Rebels played in front of mostly empty bleachers as they alternated between local rinks with no official home.
Then, the Golden Knights — and their practice facility in Summerlin — came to town to give the UNLV program a permanent home. The crowds have been standing-room only.
The Golden Knights’ City National Arena practice facility is now the home of the Rebel hockey team. The stands seat only 600, but an average of 1,100 fans crammed into the building for UNLV games last season, filling the bar, walkways, and lining the boards to get a glimpse of the action on the ice.
“When people can’t fit in the sliding glass doors, we know we’ve hit capacity,” said Zee Khan, the college team’s team general manager. “People are parked across the street because the parking lot isn’t big enough for our home games.”
The Rebels start their season at 7:30 p.m. Friday with their annual Scarlet and Gray scrimmage. Admission is free, but the self-funded team is accepting donations.
“I kind of like the small arena because it has a college atmosphere,” UNLV forward Viktor Brask said. “You want it to be small, packed and have people standing around the boards banging the glass.”
Not only did the Golden Knights allow the Rebels to make City National Arena their home rink, they even built a locker room for them during construction. Prior to that, the team bounced back and forth between Sobe Ice Arena at the Fiesta Rancho resort and the Las Vegas Ice Center on Flamingo Road.
“They’ve supported us all the way, and (Golden Knights president) Kerry Bubolz sits on our board,” Khan said. “There’s a true partnership between the two and you don’t see that in many NHL cities with the local colleges. There are only a handful of them.”
This will also be the program’s second season as a Division I program in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (club-level hockey). Since the Golden Knights brought professional hockey to Las Vegas, UNLV has seen instantaneous growth.
“It’s been a fast few years but we’ve come a long way, and the Golden Knights have been a huge part of that,” Khan said. “Hockey in the last two years has been on the forefront, and we’ve benefited greatly from it. Even in the last year before we moved to this building, toward the end of the season you could see the uptick in interest.”
Because it’s still a club team and not part of the NCAA, the Rebels are not funded by the school like other sports programs. The team is self-sustaining and acquires the funds to operate through fundraising, ticket and merchandise sales, and donations.
The Engelstad Foundation has been one of the team’s biggest supporters over the last five years, donating $250,000 last year alone, but the team still has to raise a lot of money on its own to pay for its annual budget of about $450,000.
Las Vegas isn’t near most teams geographically, so the Rebels travel a lot to seek out competition. This year they’ll go on eight road trips including games in New York City, Chicago and — hopefully for them — the national championship tournament in Dallas.
“We try to treat this program as close to an NCAA Division I program as we can,” Khan said. “I went to Arizona State and I’ve seen what that program has done with their development. We have a mentor-like relationship with their head coach helping guide us because they went through the process four years ago.”
The ultimate goal is to become a Division I hockey program, but the UNLV Athletic Department is already struggling financially so adding a sport with an average budget of $2 million is a tall order. The team’s current budget as a club team is already more than a lot of NCAA sanctioned teams at UNLV.
There are also Title IX regulations the university must follow with men’s and women’s sports, and Khan said if they were to add hockey, the likely women’s counterpart would be lacrosse.
On the ice UNLV has already elevated its game significantly. The team was ranked as high as 10th in the country last season, and finished the year at No. 13 after qualifying for the ACHA National Championships.
“It’s night and day from a few years ago,” Khan said. “We’re recruiting in the same pool as the Division III NCAA teams, and we’re putting 35 guys on the ice to compete against each other for 21 roster spots.”
This offseason they acquired forward Jared Turcotte, who chose the Rebels over a scholarship at the University of Maine, and has a legitimate chance at playing professional hockey after college.
“I remember year one we barely had enough guys to fill a roster and half those guys had only been playing hockey for a couple years because they love the sport,” Williams said. “Now everyone on our roster has played in other places and have a background.”
UNLV begins the regular season Sept. 14 against the Colorado Buffaloes. Tickets for games this season will be $15 for general admission and $40 for reserved seating, but UNLV students get in free with a student ID and discounted tickets are available for children and faculty.
“There’s a market for it now,” Khan said. “Going to a Knights game as a family is pretty expensive, so we are an alternative, especially for people who are new to the game and are really trying to be exposed to it. It’s a value option.”