Thirty years ago, the NHL touched ground in the desert of Nevada for the first time. In part to kick off its 1991-92 season, the league hosted its first outdoor exhibition game in thirty-seven years. The game took place September 27, 1991, on the Vegas Strip — outside of Caesars Palace — and it aired on national television.
Thermometers read eighty-five degrees at puck drop. A sellout crowd of thirteen-thousand plus turned out for the preseason exhibition between the Los Angeles Kings, then of the Clarence Campbell Conference, and the New York Rangers, representing the Prince of Wales Conference.
Many of them came to see the headliner, one Wayne Gretzky. Since arriving in Los Angeles in 1988, Gretzky had transformed hockey interests in Los Angeles and across the United States at large; his name alone represented a critical marketing tool in the NHL’s bid to win over a new generation of fans in areas previously thought of as hockey wastelands. Despite heat, rain, and swarms of grasshoppers that became frozen to its surface, the ice outside Caesars Palace held up. Gretzky scored in the third period, an insurance goal that helped the Kings coast to a 5-2 victory.
At the time, sustained professional hockey in Las Vegas — in western states in general — seemed ludicrous. The novelty of hockey in the desert remained, at the time, just that — a casino sideshow. In 1991-92, twenty-two organizations comprised the entirety of the NHL. Only two of them existed west of Minneapolis — St. Paul: the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks, an expansion franchise that season. Likewise, the practice of developing hockey players from desert states remained minimal, if not non-existent.
Of 146 American born players on league rosters for the 1991-92 season, only six players hailed from western U.S. states (California boasted 4 players, while Texas and Utah, preposterously, claimed one apiece); a whopping 63.7% of those American-born players hailed from either Minnesota, Massachusetts, or Michigan.
As the expansion franchise in San Jose indicated, the league had only recently started flirting with hockey outside of traditional hockey hotbeds. Though it’s hard to fathom, now, the NHL had yet to encroach on Florida, Texas, or anywhere that might be considered SEC country. Florida did not get its first NHL team until the next season when the NHL added expansion franchises Ottawa and Tampa Bay in advance of the 1992-93 season.
From there, the 1990s saw the NHL’s reach extend to areas previously regarded as inconceivable, in terms of generating enough fanfare to sustain an organization. In 1993-94, the NHL installed franchises in Anaheim and Miami (Florida), the former riding the coattails of Disney’s 1993 hit The Mighty Ducks. These additions were followed by expansion franchises in Nashville (1998) and, briefly, Atlanta. The relocation of small-market teams to more southern locales also greatly contributed to the phenomenon.
In a series of moves that made some ponder whether the NHL was moving too far from its roots, the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix, the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, and the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh, North Carolina. The introduction of Columbus and reintroduction of a Minnesota franchise for the 2000-01 season marked the closing of the chapter of modern NHL expansion.
Las Vegas Franchise In The NHL?
That is, until 2016 when the NHL awarded its first expansion franchise in seventeen seasons to Las Vegas, long perceived to be a city incapable of sustaining a major sports organization. The Golden Knights, of course, took the league by storm in 2017-18, setting several expansion records in the process. Only fifty games into their inaugural season, the Knights set the record for most wins by an expansion team with 34. They proceeded to break the record for most points by an expansion franchise with 84, and, by winning the Pacific Division, became the first true expansion team in any major sport to win its division.
The Knights one-upped all those feats by advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals. It was the first time an expansion team reached the Stanley Cup Finals since the St. Louis Blues did so in 1968. Though Vegas lost in five games to Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals, their unprecedented rise made them the darlings of the NHL and the sports world over.
Beginners luck, some said. Vegas’ success in the following two seasons proved they were no one-hit-wonder, though. Despite a dip in the standings in their second season, they still managed to make the postseason in 2019. Last year, they won another Pacific Division title before losing in the conference final to Dallas in five games. They remain serious contenders.
2021 Lake Tahoe Event
Three decades after the NHL’s 1991 exhibition in Vegas, the needle of the hockey world’s compass again points to the Sagebrush State. This time, however, the attention will not be as fleeting for hockey in the desert has never been more alive.
The NHL’s 2021 Lake Tahoe Event, an impromptu recalibration of its normal Winter Classic, will be no Vegas sideshow. The stakes, this time around, are real, and, in the covid-condensed 2020-21 season, they are meaningful. The event features two regular-season games on Saturday, February 20, and Sunday, Feb. 21, respectively. Saturday’s is set for a They will take place on a makeshift rink on the eighteenth fairway of the Edgewood Tahoe Resort’s golf course.
Ironically, the games at Lake Tahoe represent an effort by the NHL to return the game to its roots of shinny and pond hockey. “We always talk about pond hockey,” Steve Mayer, Chief Content Officer for the NHL, said of the event’s origins. “It’s always been the basis for our outdoor games. . . I think we all had seen the movie ‘Mystery, Alaska.’ … We just sort of had this imagery of this spectacular outdoors and embracing the environment and the wilderness, just a bunch of guys playing for the love of the game, you know?”
Because of covid-19 restrictions, no fans will be in attendance for either game. Indeed, that is part of the draw — no gimmicks; no casino in the background; no 85-degree temperatures. As such, there will only be ten skaters on a slab of ice; North America’s largest alpine lake and the Sierra Nevada Mountains will provide its only backdrop.
Saturday: Vegas v. Colorado
The Nouveau Riche
Saturday’s game, pitting the Las Vegas Golden Knights against the Colorado Avalanche, represents the new wave of the NHL. Both franchises are paragons of success in terms of expansion era hockey, with Colorado advancing to the 1995-96 Stanley Cup in its first season out west and Vegas accomplishing the same feat in 2018. Simultaneously, both organizations, rife with talented young players, reflect a shifting balance of power in the NHL.
Both Las Vegas and Colorado have started the 2020-21 season red hot. Through 14 games, Vegas is 10-3-1 on the young season. Michigan alum Max Pacioretty leads the team in goals with eight, while 28-year-old captain Mark Stone leads the team in points with 16. Promisingly, four players under the age of twenty-five have already notched multiple goals: Alex Tuch, 24, has four goals; Shea Theodore, 25, has three; Zach Whitecloud, 24, and Cody Glass, only 21, both have two.
Colorado, at 8-4-1, sits only four points behind them in the West Division standings. The power of the Avalanche is in its youth. An era of rebuilding has seen a rash of highly-regarded first-round draft picks make impacts in Denver. The tenth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, 24-year old Finn Mikko Rantanen (whose number 96 reflects his birth year and, coincidentally, the first year of Colorado’s existence) leads the team in goals with 7. 25-year-old Nathan McKinnon, the first overall pick in the 2013 Draft, leads the team in points, with 15, and assists, with 12. Most impressive, perhaps, is the 11 assists tallied by 22-year-old defenseman Cale Makar, the fourth overall draft pick in 2017.
The third straight game between the two teams, Saturday’s Lake Tahoe game serves as a de facto tiebreaker. The Knights defeated the Avs 1-0 on Valentine’s Day, while Colorado took Tuesday’s contest 3-2.
Sunday: Boston v. Philadelphia
The Old Guard
Sunday’s matinee, in contrast, pits two of hockey’s blue-bloods from the northeast. A chaser for the hockey purist, perhaps, Sunday’s game looks to be equally-competitive. In taking the ice at Lake Tahoe, Boston and Philadelphia will be fighting for control of the NHL’s East Division.
Through 15 games, Boston, 10-3-2, sits squarely atop the East. Their 22 points trail only league-leader Toronto. Patrice Bergeron has led the Bruins’ seamless transition in its first season without longtime captain Zdeno Chara. With six goals and ten assists, Bergeron is tied for the team-lead in points with Brad Marchand, who also has 16. The team’s goal differential, at plus fourteen, puts them among the NHL elite.
Philadelphia, at 8-3-3, currently sits in a logjam at second place in the division, tied with the Islanders and Capitals at 19 points. They trail Boston by only three points in the standings. Edmonton-transplant James van Riemsdyk leads the team in goals and assists, with 7 and 11, respectively. 20-year old Joel Farabee, the fourteenth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, has already tallied 7 goals and 6 assists. So far, the pandemic has proved Philadelphia’s biggest obstacle on the season. The team abruptly canceled practice Monday night to prevent a spread within the team; they have 7 players currently sidelined on the Covid-19 list.
The Fruit of Expansion In The NHL
On a weekend in February 2021, hockey in Nevada will be of preeminent international attention. Hockey in the desert (or on the beach) is no longer a gimmick. The development of players born in less traditional hockey markets bears that out. Of the 226 active American-born players on NHL rosters in 2020-21, only 44.7% now hail from Minnesota, Massachusetts, or Michigan. This demonstrates that the current roster demographics are far more diverse than they were during the 1991-92 season. California now boasts 10 players, Missouri 8 players, Florida 7, Colorado 6, Washington 5, Texas 5, and Arizona 2; even states like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska now have claims on NHL representation.
Perhaps no player illustrates this shift in the talent pool more than Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews. Born September 17, 1997, in San Ramon, California, Matthews grew up primarily in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, he purportedly developed an interest in hockey by watching the Phoenix Coyotes in their early years. The first overall draft pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Matthews scored 47 goals last season. He fell short of the 50 plateaux only on account of the pandemic, which reduced the season’s length; only twenty-three years old, he currently leads the NHL in goals with 14 through 16 games played.
The NHL’s future, at least for now, points west. The league’s trend towards diversity, geographically and in terms of player demographics, will be on full display this weekend, especially on Saturday. It is fitting that all four participating teams will don their “reverse retro” alternate uniforms for the event. If nothing else, the NHL weekend on the 18th fairway of the Edgewood Tahoe Resort will capture hockey and golf’s greatest overlapping since Happy Gilmore hung up his skates for golf clubs in 1996.