Since galloping onto the scene in 2003, the Las Vegas Wranglers have established themselves as a force both in the local entertainment market and on the ice of the ECHL, a nationwide AA hockey league that has seen 368 of its players move on to the National Hockey League (NHL). Having heard good things about these defending national conference champions and as a longtime hockey fan, I decided to check out our local team.
Team president and chief operations officer Billy Johnson has been named to the “40 under 40” list of younger business all-stars both here in Nevada (by Business Las Vegas) and in New Hampshire, where he served as general manager of the successful Nashua Pride baseball team. Johnson kindly spoke to me about his team and its local appeal.
“This city is so rich in entertainment that the locals often can’t get entertained,” Johnson said in explaining the paradox that makes the Wranglers such a great leisure option. “Shows on the Strip are so expensive that many of the service people who work here can’t afford them. In comparison, the Wranglers are a nice economical night out.” He’s certainly right about that. While shows on the Strip often top $100 a ticket, Wranglers tickets start at $12.50 ($9.50 for kids).
Adding to the Wranglers’ appeal is the beautiful Orleans Arena, which offers an accessible, off-Strip location with ample parking and the amenities of the Orleans Casino next door, including restaurants and a movie theater. The concourses are bright and clean and have all the features of a major league venue, including reasonably priced Vienna sausage dogs and an array of fine beverages. Because the NHL-quality rink is relatively small (just under 8,000 seats as opposed to the 20,000 seats typical of NHL venues), there are no “nosebleed” seats so your $12.50 gets you a fantastic view of the action.
On Nov. 15, 2008, I watched the Wranglers battle the Idaho Steelheads in a rematch after a bruising loss (6-1) the previous night. It was payback for the hometown side: a hard-nosed scrum with flowing offensive attacks, aggressive checking and effective defense. Bolstered by defender Jeff May’s blistering conversion at the end of a sweet rush for the first goal and a clownish blunder by the Steelheads’ goaltender for the third, Las Vegas approached the latter stages of the second period with a 3-1 advantage. Then the Steelheads chomped a buffoonery-baited hook; the Wranglers reeled in a succession of late goals and sent the Steelheads to sleep with the other fishes, 7-1.
Las Vegas and Idaho are playoff rivals and they competed fiercely – from the moment Steelhead Kris Sparre gave a Wrangler a love tap on the bum with his stick seconds into the game, to the moment Sparre exited the rink for fighting with 2:21 to play. (A guy name Sparre engaged in a round of ice boxing – how can you not love that?) The referees did an admirable job of preventing Idahoan agitation from marring the festivities. That I didn’t otherwise often notice the zebras speaks to the major-league quality of the officiating.
The level of play was terrific. The match itself and the Wranglers’ uniforms reminded me of the world-class Russian League, which I used to watch as a supporter of the Kristall team in the southern Russian city of Saratov. The Wranglers are affiliated with the Calgary Flames of the NHL and the roster includes the NHL-veteran Ferraro twins (Chris scored against Idaho, and Peter once skated for my beloved Boston Bruins).
The fans were a great cross section of enthusiasts: I saw families with kids, couples, singles, young folks, elders and hardcore hockey fans who yelled relatively polite but unflattering remarks at the opposition. As Johnson promised, I saw countless hockey jerseys: islands of Detroit, New York and even Bruins shirts dotted an ocean of Wranglers wear. Newcomers are also welcome, of course, and I recommend that they come out for a game. I’ve taken newbies to games in other venues and they’ve all raved about how exciting hockey is in person (whether they were depending on me for a ride home or not).
The Wranglers do a great job of delivering a family-friendly atmosphere, too. Jeff, one of the ushers, told me before the game that I’d be unlikely to witness the drunkenness, foul language and fan fisticuffs I took for granted at professional hockey games in Boston. Indeed, the worst thing I heard all night was, “Get the puck out of there!”
Upcoming promotions include a midnight hockey game on Dec. 15 (the puck drops at 11:59 p.m. so don’t dawdle!) and “Honor the Stick” on Dec. 20, a gala extravaganza to commemorate the recent induction of the stick into the National Toy Hall of Fame (the stick joined crayons, checkers and the cardboard box on the list of honorees). Johnson told me that other toys will be on hand at the gala, but to find out which ones you’ll have to be there. I did get him to concede that as of this writing the Slinky is not slated to appear, but feel free to bring your own.
For tickets visit the Wranglers Web site. The box office opens at 2 p.m. on game days.