The Stanley Cup final begins Monday in the unlikeliest of places: a city new to major pro sports and suddenly the center of the hockey world, Las Vegas, whose Golden Knights could become the first first-year expansion team to win a championship.
And though the sudden success on the ice has been remarkable, the phenomenon the team has become off the ice is also incredible, and a handful of former Bucs executives led the effort to get the city to embrace its new team.
"I knew Vegas wanted a team, desperately needed a team and was ready for a team," said Jim Frevola, who left the Bucs last spring to become Vegas' senior vice president and chief sales officer. "I knew it would be immediately successful as a franchise. I didn't realize we would have a fairy tale as quickly as we have."
For so long, Las Vegas had been too risky for pro sports as the capital of legal sports gambling. The Golden Knights' success has made the city into a thriving sports town. The NFL's Oakland Raiders are scheduled to move there in 2020.
"It's so exciting to be part of a startup culture, to really have a blank canvas," said Brian Killingsworth, who worked with the Rays and Bucs before joining the Golden Knights in July as chief marketing officer. "It's been incredible the way this community has gotten behind this team, the way we had to take responsibility as the first major professional sports franchise here in Vegas to help the community heal (after the Oct. 1 shooting at an outdoor concert that killed 58 people and injured more than 800).
"You saw how the power of sports brought people together."
The fans had widely embraced the team long before its first game. Season tickets were sold out, as were a majority of the advertising opportunities at T-Mobile Arena on The Strip.
Frevola and Killingsworth are part of the "Tampa Seven" with five other people who worked for the Bucs in ticketing and business, and left to be part of the Golden Knights' first season.
Tampa Bay sports teams compete with nearby beaches and theme parks for fans' money, but Vegas' competition is on the same street. How does a city best known for out-of-towners parachuting in for bachelor parties and drunken blackjack establish a strong, loyal fan base?
The Golden Knights knew Las Vegas has 2.2 million people who aren't there just for a weekend and who had never had more than minor-league baseball to call their own. The team's "VEGAS BORN" slogan has resonated with proud locals, who signed up for 14,000 season tickets as soon as they were offered.
The shooting, days before the team's first regular-season game, brought the city closer.
“Somebody summed it up well and said the Golden Knights have helped give Vegas a soul,” Killingsworth said. “It really has shown how tight-knit this community is, that it’s a lot more than just The Strip.”
Vegas won its first three games, and eight of its first nine, and quickly the Golden Knights were part of the city's main attractions, also by incorporating in the game experience the kinds of spectacles the city is known for. The Golden Knights' average attendance is at 104 percent of the arena's capacity for hockey, 17,500, the fourth-highest percentage out of the 31 NHL teams.
"We wanted to have a delicate balance of acknowledging Vegas (but) not being too over-the-top kitschy Vegas, and I think we've done a good job with that," said Frevola, who has had Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil performances during intermissions.
"I'm not sure what they envision," #Bucs @NFLPA rep Ali Marpet says of the NFL's new anthem policy. "They probably need to clarify their position." https://t.co/TE8lneWb2a #GoBucs @NFLSTROUD #NFLAnthem #NFLAnthemPolicy— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 25, 2018
And though Vegas embraced out-of-towners during its first regular season, knowing Blackhawks fans might want to escape Chicago winters in February, it has shifted to home fans in the playoffs. The team offered a "Knights Vow" program, offering season-ticket holders a discount on playoff tickets if they promised not to resell them on the secondary market.
Now the Golden Knights face the Capitals, who eliminated the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, in the Stanley Cup final.
This Lightning roster is young enough and good enough to win it all. This coaching staff is good enough. The worst thing it can do is tear the whole thing up. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TomWJones @TB_Times @TBLightning https://t.co/SnmQhAH6GW— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 25, 2018
So how does Vegas live up to the bright lights of a national platform when new fans watching on television are expecting the city's biggest stars to attend? Does it reach out to Britney Spears? Can Celine Dion sing the national anthem? Maybe Siegfried and Roy come out of retirement with a tiger on the ice? Or something even bigger?
"It's an embarrassment of riches," Frevola said. "You're turning down groups that other teams would be lining up for. We're still trying to find out if Elvis truly is dead. If he's not, this is where he should make his glorious return."