Slapshots in the Sand: Ice Hockey in Vegas

Wranglers on the icePhoto by Chris Arabia
The Las Vegas Wranglers in action

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).

Orleans lobbyPhoto by Chris Arabia
Art deco in the Orleans lobby

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 Duke'Photo by Chris Arabia
Wrangler mascot “The Duke”
approaches the press box

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.


3 responses on “Slapshots in the Sand: Ice Hockey in Vegas

  1. The Las Vegas Wranglers sound like a great deal, especially for locals. You can’t beat the ticket price and you don’t have to fight traffic on the Strip to get to the venue. The Orleans is really easy to get to and they always have plenty of parking. They’ve got one of the better buffets, too, if you want to turn game night into game-and-dinner-out night. I’m a newbie as far as ice hockey goes, but I could see my husband and I having a good time.

  2. As an on-again off-again fan of the Wranglers, this article has rekindled my ‘hankerin for hockey.’ When you think about it, having the opportunity to watch ice hockey in the middle of the desert is pretty unique in itself, but the Wranglers have always put on a good show for the money, and the competitiveness of the ECHL is sure to impress newbies and oldbies (like me). Great article, count me in!

  3. Carrie, the visuals themselves would be worth your while — both the game and the arena itself. I watched the traffic disperse after the game, by the way, and you’d have to get lost on the way to the exit lane to be there for more than a few minutes.

    Rick, I agree — it’s almost unfair to call it a minor league. Having watched the Bruins fumble their way through the last 15 years, I have seen them on nights when they’d probably fall to the Wranglers.

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