The NHL begins play in Las Vegas in just over a year. The club name isn’t yet official, but it most likely will be the Black Knights, because the principal owner, 71-year-old West Point graduate Bill Foley, owns a bunch of companies — such as Black Knight Financial Services — by the same name.
Vegas is a curious fit for the NHL, but I’m betting hockey makes it there. The core city has a population of nearly 600,000, and the entire metro area tops out at just under 2 million. Throw in the billion or so thrill- and profit-seeking chumps who troll the Strip, and Foley’s newbie Black Knights have a large, elastic, and free-spending market to entice.
Wherever good hockey goes, it is usually embraced. In sunny climes, such as the Vegas desert, it just has to be good enough to keep the customer engaged — a dynamic unknown in Toronto and Montreal. Foley sounds intent on delivering a first-rate product, and it sounds like the NHL, for collecting its record half-billion-dollar expansion fee, is equally intent on offering up more than tomato cans for Foley to stock his roster.
Yet I wonder how many wide-eyed Black Knight fans (if I can be so presumptuous) will be surprised to learn that today’s NHL isn’t the NHL they’ve conjured from afar. The league’s blood-and-guts days are long gone, and they are not coming back, even if there remains that small and vocal segment of fans who wish bench-clearing brawls, punchfests, and stick fights were still part of the nightly fare.
Some of the fans in Vegas no doubt will be counting on all that gore. Why not? It’s how the game was sold for decades. They’ll need time, and patience, to realize that fights are few, and some nights goals are even fewer. Instead, as is true in even the NHL’s Original Six markets, they’ll have to be sold on speed, goaltending, stingy defenses, brilliant LED displays, and Jumbotron video clips.
I’d say that’s a tough sell, but I’d be wrong. With Vegas aboard, the league is now the Original 31 (and counting . . . fingers crossed, Quebec City). If people weren’t being entertained, it wouldn’t be growing, and you don’t have to be sitting next to Maria Sharapova, debating ROI and VC opportunities at the Harvard Business School to figure that out.
The AHL, often a testing ground for NHL rule changes, moved last week to apply an even greater chokehold on fighting. Players who fight immediately following a faceoff will be sent to the showers, assessed game misconducts. So long, staged fights. And good riddance.
Further, the league imposed a one-game suspension for any player who is assessed 10 fighting majors in a season. An additional one-game suspension will be levied for fights 11, 12, and 13. Beginning at fight No. 14, the suspension will move to two games for each fighting major.
Last year’s AHL baddest boy was 5-foot-9-inch Michael Liambas, a Rockford left wing/defenseman. Over the last four seasons, AHL and ECHL combined, he has piled up 838 penalty minutes in 217 games. Busy boy. Yet to play in the NHL. He had 20 fighting majors last year. Under the new rules, he would be suspended for 18 games, the loss of nearly a quarter-season’s pay. Guess what? Michael Liambas will learn the art of sitting on his hands.
The NHL will pay close attention to how it all plays out in the AHL. Faced with a growing lawsuit over how it handled concussions through the decades, many of the suit’s claimants ex-fighters, the NHL probably moves quickly to a similar model. Fighting once was very good business for the business of hockey. Neurological studies (discovery of CTE) and lawsuits have a way of changing business models.
Last Sunday, just days before the AHL instituted its changes, one of the game’s great enforcers died. Leapin’ Lou Fontinato was 84 years old. Known best for his days as a Rangers defenseman, Fontinato was the first NHLer to roll up 200 penalty minutes in a season.
Fontinato was so feared and revered that Look magazine during the 1958-59 NHL season ran a six-page spread on him, featuring him as hockey’s toughest customer. But that was before the night of Feb. 1, 1959, the night Gordie Howe, the 30-year-old Red Wing icon, got ahold of Fontinato at Madison Square Garden.
A confident, brazen Fontinato rushed into a jam behind the Ranger net, where Howe was looming around a tussle between Red Kelly and Eddie Shack (later a Bruin). Fontinato, who previously enjoyed some luck in matchups with Howe, charged into the fracas with a punch lined up for Howe. Howe ducked. And then it got ugly.
“That honker of his was right there and I drilled it,’’ Howe said later, in an account by author Richard Bak. “That first punch was what did it. It broke his nose a little bit.’’
More pummeling followed. Propping the dazed, bleeding Fontinato upright with his left arm, the powerful Howe mashed Fontinato’s nose into pate with a succession of rights, as if, one player said, he was chopping wood.
The beating was so profound that Life magazine followed with its own three-page spread, including pictures of the beaten and bandaged Fontinato. Headline: “Don’t Mess Around With Howe.’’
It was more than 20 years before the NHL finally began to move away from pucks as blood sport. Thankfully, it changed, first by eradicating bench-clearing brawls, then slowly chipping away with more restrictive measures. It’s a better, far safer workplace in 2016, but it took a lot of blood and damaged gray matter to get there.
Vegas, enjoy the game. Just know, very much like Vegas itself, it ain’t what it used to be.