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NHL attempts to expand its brand with visit to Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS - It's not every day you see Robin Leach at an NHL event.

But there he was among hockey's rich and famous this week, chatting with Mark Messier during an exclusive party at the Palms before turning up for the league's award show. As much as anything, this is why the NHL came to Las Vegas.

There was noticeably more buzz around this year's awards show than in years past and several opportunities for the league to try and expand its brand in new ways.

Pictures of Alex Ovechkin and other star players were plastered all over the Palms, where the awards show will be held for the next two years. Fans wearing NHL jerseys could be seen walking around the casino while players lounged by the pool.

It was certainly a unique scene.

"We made this another destination event," commissioner Gary Bettman said this week. "Not unlike opening the season in Europe or the Winter Classic, 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.

"This is a destination city known for entertainment ... and I think it's raised the profile of the event."

The awards show will be held here for at least the next two years, giving the NHL a chance to make improvements moving forward.

Even though the tickets cost more than US$500, the Pearl Concert Theatre was full when the cameras started rolling on Thursday night.

There were a few slip-ups by presenters during the show but it was an otherwise successful evening, with the game's flashiest player in Alex Ovechkin taking home both the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award.

He also won US$500 playing blackjack and was understandably pleased with the trip.

"It was a great time here," said Ovechkin. "It's an unbelievable place to be to spend some time with your friends. Lots of good things happen here."

That was the overwhelming sentiment among players - and not just the young guys who took advantage of the nightlife.

Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom brought his young family with him just days after a tough loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and said they had a marvellous time.

There were roughly 110 players in city this week because the NHL Players' Association also decided to hold its annual meeting for North American-based players here.

It ended up giving hockey the kind of platform it rarely enjoys in the desert. From all accounts, the city welcomed everyone with open arms and was happy to have the NHL on its turf.

"Las Vegas has always been the entertainment capital of the world," said George Maloof, a co-owner of the Palms. "I think it's an alternative, trying something different. It's unique and fun."

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is reportedly paying the NHL about US$650,000 per year to sponsor the awards show. That organization has also made it clear that it wants a franchise in the city at some point.

It doesn't look like that will be happening any time soon.

At least one player is comfortable with only have to come to Vegas once a year for the awards show.

"It's going to be hard for hockey players to live here," said Ovechkin. "Every day it's nightlife, lots of clubs, lots of strip clubs here. You know, it's pretty hard for young guys - especially if you don't have a wife or a girlfriend.

"It's dangerous."

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