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THN at the NHL Awards: Is Vegas a viable hockey market?

Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference discussing the 2009 NHL Awards at the Ghostbar at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

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Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference discussing the 2009 NHL Awards at the Ghostbar at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – Palm trees, poker, poolside piña coladas and…pucks?

When the NHL announced its 2009 awards gala would be moved from traditional Toronto to exotic Las Vegas, it begged and pleaded the question: “Why?”

Why hold one of your marquee events in a town saturated with marquees? A town that is firmly surrounded by desert, about 300 miles from your closest franchise location? A town in which NHL hockey barely registers on the radar screen, let alone the gambling board.

Does this make any sense?

We endeavored to find out upon our arrival in Nevada.

It didn’t start well. When we asked the cab driver who picked us up at the airport if he was aware the NHL awards were in town he said, “NHL? Is that hockey?”

We proceeded to the strip to get reaction from people on the street, both residents and tourists. Most professed they were sports fans, though nearly all were oblivious to the presence of the NHL just down the road.

“I had no idea about that,” said Ron, a Seahawks fan from Seattle, in town for the World Series of Poker. “I can tell you the Penguins won it (all)…they beat the Red Wings.”

Duane, a teacher in Las Vegas who enjoys football, basketball and the occasional hockey fight was also unaware the league was in town. “Absolutely no idea (about the awards). I don’t know if anybody knows much about hockey over here.”

That said, many were of the belief an NHL franchise would do well here, a novelty ice diversion from the blazing heat of the desert.

Whether that’s on the NHL’s agenda isn’t clear. They’re saying the reasons they’re here are multifold.

“We’ve made this another destination event, not unlike opening the season in Europe or the Winter Classic,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “We’ve created a large-scale event that is good for our business partners, the players are here in record numbers and it’s great for our fans. We have lots of fans who have come from all over.”

At the same time, there was a sense the gala was growing stale in Toronto and a shift was required to lend it new life and attract more attention and attendance from all involved. In recent years, more and more finalists were declining invites and that trend started to spread to award winners.

Vegas, it was thought, would give players added incentive to be part of the program. That the NHLPA is holding its meetings in town helps, but Calgary’s Jarome Iginla believes there’s more to it than a union conference.

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“When I heard the awards were going to be here I was hoping I get a chance to come and be part of it,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of the guys here. A lot of guys come here for vacation anyway once the season ends. It’s different. It’s a nice way to cap the year.”

And what about a team being here one day?

“I think it sounds exciting,” Iginla said. “Obviously it’s a very alive city.

“There has been a lot of talk about it among the players and usually it has been positive. There’s always the joke the home team would sure have a nice advantage and there’s probably some truth there. It might be difficult to be focused (as a visiting player), but it would be fun. I’d be all for it.”

Man On The Street: Vegas a hockey town?

PRODUCER: TED COOPER

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Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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