Record: 52 – 20 – 10
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — It's game day on the Strip. And the action outside beautiful new T-Mobile Arena is wilder than anything that could possibly happen inside the rink.
As fans of the local Golden Knights are pulling on their jerseys and getting ready to head to the game, Eren Costa is putting on his own uniform — which essentially consists of a six-foot boa constrictor slung over his shoulder.
This is prime-time for characters such as Costa, as an increased flow of foot traffic is good for business. There will be plenty of folks wanting to pay for pictures with him and his snake.
"Everything you want to do here, you can do here," Costa, who moved to Sin City from New York, told the Free Press. He knows a little bit about hockey but has never been to a game. He hopes to change that one day soon. Of course, he'll have to leave his serpent at home.
Just down the block, Shawn Hillman is shouting at passersby. He's trying to entice them to come to one of the many adult-themed clubs in the area. Several other people are handing out cards for escorts, wearing shirts that read "Orgasm Police."
"We've got strippers. Wrapped in bacon," Hillman shouts. "They're wrapped in bacon, man. And if you don't like bacon, well, they're still strippers."
Hillman is wearing a Chicago Bulls jacket and says he's a big hockey fan.
"Of course, who doesn't like watching somebody kick somebody's ass," he said. He wants to get to a Golden Knights game soon but said this job — along with another unique gig he has dressing up as "weed man" — makes it difficult to find the time at night.
Yes, weed man. A full marijuana plant costume. People pay to have their photo taken with him.
"This is what Vegas is. It's interesting fun. You never know what you'll run into or the type of people you'll run into," he said.
A bit further down the Strip, Derrick Tupper is in his usual post outside the famous Bellagio fountains. He's dressed, head-to-toe, as Spider-Man. These days, many of the pictures he takes are with people wearing hockey jerseys.
"I've never watched a game in my life. I don't know the rules, nothing," said Tupper. But he has no doubt pro hockey can succeed in this crazy city.
"Locals, people are going nuts. It's the same thing like the characters out here. There's always going to be somebody that likes it, and somebody that doesn't. But in Vegas, people are always looking for something to do. Always," he said.
George McPhee has been around the block a few times in his career. But the veteran NHL general manager, now at the helm of the expansion Golden Knights, admits the first couple months in Vegas have been a wild ride.
"As I’ve told a lot of people, it’s like putting Madison Square Garden in Times Square. There’s a buzz around the building, and when you get into the building it’s a different kind of buzz. And it’s just all you’d ever hope for. It’s as much fun as you could ever have watching hockey," McPhee said Thursday.
Indeed, the options are incredibly varied around the rink. Today, for instance, there will be a Tragically Hip tribute band called "The Strictly Hip" performing a tailgate party on the outdoor stage in "The Park", a huge plaza connected to the rink which includes restaurants, bars, patios and even interactive hockey games and "puck drop plinko" for fans.
An illuminated drumline will march from the New York, New York hotel into the arena and lead fans in college-like chants. There are Cirque du Soleil performers on-ice during intermissions, and people dressed as knights who sit in a castle constructed inside the rink.
"It's everything you could ever hope for when you’re starting, as we are, as a new franchise in a new town. The response has been remarkable. The attention that this team has got is remarkable," said McPhee. "It’s a very very popular team, not only here but around the league. It’s a fun team to watch. We compete hard. It’s an amazing experience down at the T-Mobile Arena."
It's all about getting eyes on the product in a city where the entertainment competition is fierce. For example, tonight the Golden Knights are playing at the same time as Cher, Celine Dion, Adam Sandler, Mike Tyson, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield, Tony Bennett, the Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men, Rich Little, Penn And Teller, The Chippendales, Donnie and Marie Osmond, Carrot Top, the Blue Man Group, Criss Angel and a half-dozen Cirque shows, among others.
Perhaps what's most unique about the Vegas franchise is how Manitoba's fingerprints are all over it.
Longtime Brandon Wheat Kings boss Kelly McCrimmon is McPhee's right-hand man in Vegas. The first Knight inked to a contract was free agent Reid Duke, also from the Wheat Kings. Their first draft choice this past summer was Winnipeg's Cody Glass, currently playing in the Western Hockey League.
They selected local products Calvin Pickard, Cody Eakin and Brendan Leipsic in the expansion draft. Pickard was later traded to Toronto, while Eakin and Leipsic are big parts of the team. They also obtained Winnipegger Keegan Kolesar in a trade.
And they hired Gary Lawless and Shane Hnidy away from broadcast positions in Winnipeg to help carry their television presentations.
"I’ve been having a fantastic time down here at the rink, away from the rink. Good group of guys, everyone’s new here, everyone’s having fun together, really bonding and stuff. It’s been nothing but the best so far and I’m excited to continue it," Eakin, a Dallas Stars castoff and the son of former Winnipeg police officer Butch Eakin, said Thursday.
He's excelling in a third-line role with the Golden Knights and is expecting a few dozen friends to be at tonight's game against the Winnipeg Jets. He's heard reports there could be upwards of several thousand Manitobans in town.
"It’s going to be fun. I think every road team that comes in here is excited, they get a lot of fans coming in here as well. There’s going to be a whole bunch of people that I know making the trip down," said Eakin. "They’re going to be able to enjoy the city and watch some hockey, watch their team play and cheer on a few Winnipeg boys on this side."
Trevor Paul passed away suddenly in 2003, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of many family members and friends. And for more than a decade, they've been paying tribute to him every year with the TPC — The Trevor Paul Classic.
This year's stop finds the group of six in Vegas, where they'll enjoy a few days of partying and celebrating in his honour.
"The majority of us have known each other since kindergarten," said Josh Weinstein, a Winnipeg defence lawyer who is part of the group.
In years past they've gone to the Brier, March Madness and Major League Baseball spring training.
"There was even once a suggestion to do the Running of the Bulls in Spain. That didn't go far," said Weinstein, who arrived in town with the group on Thursday night. They purchased club seats at T-Mobile to watch tonight's game in style.
"We make sure to raise a glass to (Trevor) on the first night we get together and just enjoy each other's company," he said.
Trudy and Ian Mattey came down earlier this week on a "plane full of Jets fans." They booked their flights last summer within an hour of the schedule coming out and Winnipeg's first date in Vegas confirmed.
It's the first time the middle-aged couple have been to Sin City since they were in their teens.
"We've been wanting to come for a while and check it out," Ian told the Free Press. And while they're excited about tonight's hockey game, they likely won't be rushing back for another visit.
"It's not my kind of place. It's sensory overload," he said. "But I've seen a lot of support. The people in town seem to be really happy to have a team. There's all sorts of businesses supporting it. I've seen a lot of support on the street. I actually think its going to work here, more than maybe some other southern U.S. cities."
Kathy and Jack Swar have previously travelled to Phoenix and Minnesota to watch the Jets play, and didn't hesitate to come to Vegas, one of their favourite cities, for the inaugural game. They have more than a dozen friends joining them this week.
"There's so much to do around here, a lot of sights to see," said Kathy.
Jack hopes to make this a regular event, believing the Vegas team will be here for the long haul.
"I think so, just because of the fans from all the other cities. There will be a lot of fans from out of town. Also probably a lot of Europeans who come here, and probably tourists who've never seen NHL hockey," he said.
As celebratory as things have been with the Golden Knights dropping the puck, there remains an aura of sadness and mourning over the community following the Oct. 1 massacre. The gunman who killed 58 was holed up in the Mandalay Bay hotel, just a short walk from T-Mobile.
Vegas had played an exhibition game that night. Several players, including Leipsic, had gone to the country music festival two nights earlier. They also had tickets to go that night, but elected to go for dinner at the Cosmopolitan Hotel instead. As the bullets started flying, they were all locked down in the hotel for hours. Team security eventually came to escort them home in the middle of the night.
"It was a scary sight because there were a bunch of us there on Friday and the shooter checked in on Thursday. Then the thing that happened in New York (terrorist attack while they were on road trip). We’ve been kind of dodging attacks here. We were about a block away from what went on there. It’s been a crazy couple of months. But that’s the way the world works, I guess," Leipsic said Thursday
"Vegas Strong" signs are all over town, including outside the arena. Their home opener was an emotional affair, paying tribute to the victims of the tragedy and all the first responders. Players and staff have done outreach in the community and continue to try and leave a mark.
"It kind of brought the community a little closer together. It brought our team closer together," said Leipsic. "Anything we can do to put a smile on some of those people’s faces that have been affected. It’s definitely something you don’t want to happen, but if you can help them heal a little bit, we’ll do that."
"Lots of people knew different people indirectly who were affected by it. Of course we all were affected, being a new team here. But we were able to help out the community a little bit, donate some time. I think our job is just to help the city mend and we did that a little bit when times were tough," said Eakin. "I think we kind of put it on ourselves to help the city mend, help give them something they could enjoy at such a bad time. We did that for a lot of people, I think."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Thursday, November 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM CST: updates headline
9:54 PM: changes suite to club seats