Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley. Source: Getty
“I’m not being egotistical, but I feel like we knew (other) teams better than they knew themselves. We really had it figured out. It was hard work. Nothing we’ve done was by accident.”
LAS VEGAS – One day early in the season, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley walked past Marc-Andre Fleury’s car in the parking lot of the team’s practice facility and noticed it was, well, rather unkempt. Foley asked the goalie why his car was so dirty and Fleury told him that with everything that was going on, he hadn’t found the time to clean it. Foley immediately established a car wash and detailing service at the practice rink for the players, but found nobody was using it.
“So a couple of days later I had a meeting with the guys and I said, ‘It’s like the military. Use it or lose it,’ ” Foley said. “I told them, ‘If you don’t use that car wash and detailing, I’m pulling it because I’m not going to have these guys just sitting around.’ The next day there were 17 cars lined up.”
A little later in the season, when Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron mentioned in passing that they were going to buy a ping-pong table for the dressing room, they came to the rink the next day and there was one in the players’ lounge. Not long after, there was a dartboard and a bubble hockey game there as well. It’s almost as though all the Golden Knights players have to do is ask for something and their rich father is going to give it to them. “I don’t know if that’s the case,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt. “I might mention a new car then…or maybe a new deal. I don’t know.” (Don’t worry. That’s coming after next season.)
But lest you should ever think Foley is a billionaire who rolled out of bed and lucked his way into a Stanley Cup final with generous expansion rules, think again. Everything is calculated and planned with Foley, right down to making certain his players are driving clean cars. The way he figures it, that’s one fewer thing for the players to worry about, which allows them to focus more on the task at hand, which is winning hockey games. It’s that attention to detail – pun intended – that has made Foley the King Midas of the NHL in his first year as a member of the club.
Also, it’s important to know this. The long-term success or lack of it for an NHL organization can always, without exception, be tracked back to ownership. It always, always starts at the top and flows down. Teams that have poorly funded and unstable ownership never luck their way into being good. By the same token, while they might have some lean years, those with stable and visionary owners thrive on and off the ice. And it’s clear that even with this small body of work, 73-year-old Bill Foley is part of the latter group. In short, he’s a modern-day Mike Illitch.
“It almost as if he’s playing NHL '18 and being in the owner mode on the Xbox,” Schmidt said. “He’s just having a great time with it. He’s not a hockey guy. He is, but he isn’t. If you talk to any of his business associates, that’s the way he runs his businesses. He has fun with it, he expects people to work hard and that’s it.”
Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant played for Illitch in the latter’s early days as owner of the Detroit Red Wings and he does see some similarities. “From Day 1, it’s been supportive,” Gallant said. “He’s around all the time, but he doesn’t tell you what to do. He asks a lot of questions about hockey. He just wants to help the team win as much as he can.”
Until establishing the Golden Knights, Foley had specialized in buying companies in distress and revitalizing them. He did it with Fidelity National Financial, turning it into a company that produces $7 billion in annual revenues from mortgages and real estate. Most recently, he’s put about $200 million into financially distressed wineries. The Golden Knights were not a money hole, but they could have been. Foley had the vision to see that hockey could indeed work in the desert and boldly took major professional sports where it had never gone before. And now his team is three wins away from winning a Stanley Cup in its first year of operation. Much of the hockey world scoffed when he predicted the Golden Knights would be in the playoffs within three years and win the Stanley Cup in five.
On this night, just a little over an hour before Game 2 of the final, Foley is sitting in the atrium on the mezzanine level of the T-Mobile Arena in a black Golden Knights golf shirt, smiling and laughing and happy to chat, largely because it takes his mind off how nervous he is about the game. He watches all the games with GM George McPhee and assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. McCrimmon internalizes most things during the game and Foley is the fan of the three. McPhee, well, let’s just say McPhee is intense. “George doesn’t make it any easier,” Foley said. “And the further we go through the game, the more he shrinks in the seat. It is hilarious. I wouldn’t want to repeat some of his comments.”
It should come as no surprise that Foley watches all the games with his two most trusted lieutenants. Much of the team’s success, Foley said, comes from the fact that he runs his companies like military operations. The 1967 West Point grad views himself as the battalion commander and McPhee is the company commander. McCrimmon is the executive officer, and coach Gerard Gallant is the platoon leader. “Everyone is responsible for their own actions and has to take responsibility,” Foley said, “but the battalion commander can still go down and talk to anybody at any time.”
Foley did see action as a member of the Third Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division when the U.S. invaded the Dominican Republic under the direction of president Lyndon Johnson during the Dominican Revolution in 1965. Johnson, aiming to prevent the development of what he saw as a second Cuban Revolution, deployed troops in April of 1965 and Foley, then a 20-year-old cadet who was still attending West Point, was called. Foley said his time in the Dominican pales in comparison to the sacrifice his classmates made later in Vietnam, where 30 of them were killed. But the operation in the Dominican was successful, with American troops gaining ground and getting a ceasefire in less than 24 hours. “Basically, we kicked the Cubans’ asses,” Foley said. “They left. They were a little outmanned though. There were 18,000 Americans.”
The Golden Knights, meanwhile, were not that successful that quickly, but it’s been close. The first-year team in the desert not only has been a hit on the ice, but it will make a lot of money, enough to have to cut a revenue-sharing check to the league after this season rather than drawing one. The Golden Knights were already in the top five in the league in game-day revenues and merchandising sales before the playoffs started. Sponsorship, ticketing and merchandising sales are way over budget in terms of revenues, but the local broadcast deal, which is a huge factor for teams, is not a strong one. And why would it be? No one really knew what they were getting with this team, so why would anyone pay enormous rights fees? That too will almost certainly change.
“Broadcast side is below budget,” Foley said. “Our deal with AT&T SportsNet was good, but it’s not big-time. But I think they appreciate the ratings. But now, playoffs, you start getting to the Stanley Cup, you actually make quite a bit of money, which I didn’t even understand or appreciate. That was never in our budget, and we never thought about it, but it’s happened.”
What Foley could not have anticipated was how the Golden Knights players and staff would embrace their status as castoffs. It’s a narrative that is a little bit of a stretch -- after all, the Golden Knights got some very good players and took advantage of teams’ salary cap constraints -- but it has fueled them this season. They like to refer to themselves as the 'Vegas Misfits' and even if it doesn’t really apply, the perception is a strong motivator.
“On thing I didn’t realize how important it would be is the guys were all basically rejects,” Foley said. “They all came from somewhere else. I tell them once in a while, I say, ‘You know, you were fired because you were exposed.’ And I remind them it’s not an insult. 'Turk' (Gallant) was fired, George McPhee was fired, (director of player personnel) Vaughn Karpan, fired, (director of amateur scouting) Scotty Luce, fired, (assistant director of player personnel) Bob Lowes, fired, (special advisor to hockey operations) David Conte, fired, (goalie coach) David Prior, fired. They were all canned. So, we have a group of people that have something to prove, and the players are proving it, they are doing great.”
All have been instrumental to the Golden Knights’ wildly successful season. Which goes back to all of this being about much more than luck and favorable expansion draft rules. It goes much deeper than that. From the battalion commander down, the Knights were incredibly well-organized and mobilized, the way any successful military operation is. McPhee did a brilliant job targeting teams with cap and budget issues to get favorable deals for players and a mother lode of prospects for the future. “I’m not being egotistical, but I feel like we knew (other) teams better than they knew themselves,” Foley said. “We really had it figured out. It was hard work. Nothing we’ve done was by accident.”
And regardless of what happens in this Stanley Cup final, the Golden Knights will be reaping the rewards for years to come. They will have established an enormous footprint before the Oakland Raiders arrive to compete for the sporting entertainment dollar and, on the ice, things look very good. The Golden Knights traded a first-rounder this year, a second-rounder next year and a third-rounder in 2021 for Tomas Tatar – that’s a tough one – and they have the tiny matter of coming to terms on a long-term deal with 43-goal scorer William Karlsson, but they have 11 picks in 2019 and nine in 2020. The top two of their 12 picks in 2018 – Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki – were 100-point men in junior hockey and second-rounder Nic Hague was named defenseman of the year in the CHL. Three other picks have already been signed to entry-level deals.
“No matter what happens in this series, we’re advanced,” Foley said. “We’re a different team than I thought we would be at the end of Year 1 or at the end of Year 2. And so, we are going to have a good team for quite a few years, and we have the luxury of having a great draft picks of coming up, that won’t be in the system for two or three more years. We got these guys stacked up, and with the money we have in terms of unrestricted free agents, we can go after some guys. We can improve this team for next year and the year after.”
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