Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun
Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014 | 2:52 p.m.
John Katsilometes and Tricia McCrone talk to Las Vegas Wranglers President Billy Johnson about his team's search for a new arena.
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.
The Orleans Arena, a Boyd Gaming facility located just west of the Las Vegas Strip, is one of the nation’s leading mid-sized arenas, and was recently ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 5 internationally among venues of similar size by Venues Today Magazine.
The Arena hosts more than 200 events each year, including concerts by top names like Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Van Halen, Brooks & Dunn, Black Eyed Peas, Akon and Rihanna; family favorites like The Harlem Globetrotters and Circus Spectacular; and a wide variety of sporting events, including NCAA basketball tournaments, the West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference Basketball Championships, mixed martial arts with Superior Cage Combat, and major motorsports events.
The arena serves as home to the Las Vegas Wranglers professional ECHL hockey team, the Las Vegas Legends professional indoor soccer team, and the Lingerie Football League’s Las Vegas Sin. Stay connected to the Orleans Arena on Facebook (www.facebook.com/orleansarena) and on Twitter (@orleansarena).
True to its namesake, The Orleans gives visitors a year-round Mardi Gras feeling with a New Orleans French Quarter environment.
Located just a short way from the center of gambling on the Strip, The Orleans offers a collection of attractions that helps to draw in a mix of locals and visitors.
In addition to the 1,885 hotel rooms and 134,000-square foot casino, the property has a 70-lane bowling center, an 18-screen movie theater, an 850-seat showroom and a 9,500-seat arena, home to the Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team.
The hotel also has 14 dining options, including Canal Street, The Prime Rib Loft, Koji Sushi Bar & China Bistro and Big Al’s Oyster Bar.