There should be nothing unusual about this. One team is cruising along in the NHL standings with (as of this writing) only one loss while the other has yet to win a game. What is ridiculous is that the winning team is the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights in the first ten games of their first NHL season while the losing team is supposedly their greatest rival, the Arizona Coyotes who have been around for more than two decades. By all logic it is supposed to be the other way round. In other words, Las Vegas is everything Arizona was supposed to be.
When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman offered readmission terms to Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg in 2010, he listed three necessary factors; great fan base, proper arena, and suitable ownership. There has never been a better case for the importance of the last factor than by looking at what Las Vegas has done. Owner Bill Foley and his ownership team did their NHL homework well. First he hired the right general manager, George McPhee who in turn hired the right coach, Gerard Gallant.
True, the NHL’s expansion draft was more generous than it had been in the past, but you have to have competent ownership and management to make it work. There is no better way to build a following in a new expansion market than by icing a winning team as fast as possible. Whatever happens in later years and later in this season, Las Vegas has got off on the right foot at capturing the hearts and imaginations of the locals, especially in a city reeling from the recent shooting tragedy.
Las Vegas is an unlikely city for hockey. I certainly did not include it on my list of best NHL expansion sites or even in my list of second best cities. I ranked it with Phoenix and Atlanta which has been unsuccessful in the NHL twice. But it shows that competent ownership can make up for a lot of potential negatives. Unlikely Tampa Bay is now one of the better franchises in the NHL. Even Carolina gives hope. Part of the reason why they were last in NHL attendance last season is that they haven’t had a good team for several years. But there is no reason to believe that the fans won’t come back if the Hurricanes ice a contending team again.
In contrast, horrible Phoenix has iced only one contending team in their entire history. Due to competent ownership, there is hope for survival and the building of a flourishing franchise in Las Vegas. There is virtually none in Phoenix where the location of the current arena is bad, the current team horrible again, and neither the municipal or state authorities want to spend public taxpayer money on consistent bad ownership and management and finance a new downtown arena. Even the NBA Suns have declared that they want nothing to do with the Coyotes and don’t want share their existing arena with them or build another one in partnership with them again. Except for the few sad fans that are watching their franchise die (again), the Coyotes could probably pack their bags for another city and nobody would notice.
It didn’t have to be that way. Las Vegas is also a desert city, not very familiar with hockey. Perhaps it is unfair to compare but they are showing that if you have competent people in the right positions, an unlikely site can develop into a great sports market. Nashville has long been a suspect hockey market, but icing consistently competitive teams, and last year’s breakthrough to the Stanley Cup Final may finally have turned the corner. It could have been that way for Phoenix.
Instead there may only be one “desert team” in the NHL again, but in Las Vegas, not Phoenix. The potential “desert rivalry” may be dead before it ever had a chance to start. The Golden Knights may have to adopt Anaheim, Los Angeles, or San Jose as their best rival. If no new arena is built, the Coyotes will probably be packing their bags for a new city with a new name in the not too distant future.