An NHL hockey team goes on close to 50 road trips a year. They fly through thousands of Kilometers of air space and driver travel all over the continent. It is one of the most mundane and lonely aspects of being a professional hockey player, killing time on the road while you would much rather be at home with family.
For the newly formed Vegas Golden Knights, this past week saw them embark on a road trip that was anything but lonely or boring. Rather, the Vegas Golden Knights set out on a mission to insert themselves into non-traditional hockey markets. Vegas made it very clear this week that they want to be the team of the Rockies.
This trip didn’t involve travel restricted to trips from the hotel to the rink and back. This trip had a special purpose in mind and it really had nothing to do with the on ice product of the Golden Knights.
Why a Vegas Golden Knights fan road trip?
It’s simple really, Vegas needs sports fans. They need the fans that exist to come out of the woodwork and claim the Golden Knights as their team. Vegas needs people around the rocky mountain range to adopt the NHL’s newest team as their own.
The VGK have hit the nail right on the head for marketing so far. Their twitter account is creating a buzz, interacting with fans regularly, something most large corporations, teams, and owners would understandably shy away from doing.
Not Vegas, though. Vegas wants to bring people in and while many sports teams and public figures have fallen foul of social media, the constant and daily interactions with fans have been worth any potential risk of social media embarrassment.
Vegas, without even having players to market, has created a stir. They sold 14,000 season tickets and their home opener sold out in five minutes when public tickets went on sale last Friday. A spoof of The Hangover that documented a few Vegas players after the expansion draft created a buzz.
Calvin Pickard allowed fans to help him design his mask, which drew praise.
The only complaint that Vegas have heard has been that jerseys are not for sale yet. The new Adidas jersey is not for sale yet for any NHL club, but when your team is brand new, it is tougher to wait it out.
So the Golden Knights, and the marketing genius they are becoming thought up a VGK road trip that would take key personnel to different parts of Utah, Idaho, and Montana.
The sole purpose of this trip was to build the game of hockey and the name of the Golden Knights.
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
The first stop of the trip included Calvin Pickard, Vegas’ backup goaltender in beautiful Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This medium-sized town of 50,000 is nearly 16 hours from the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip, but for a day or two, this resort town on the lake became a hockey-crazed town.
Idaho isn’t known for hockey, and Coeur d’Alene has the only full sized rink in Northern Idaho; there isn’t another arena within 45 minutes of this town. It is a far cry from the hockey crazed towns and cities of Canada, but the people at this gathering of 200 or so at the Frontier Ice Center were as passionate as ever.
The Frontier Ice Center was reopened in 2012 after a devastating snow storm in 2008 collapsed the roof of the rink which closed the arena for nearly four years. Programs have been started and fundraisers are slowly bringing hockey to this resort town.
Pickard was the main attraction as he signed autographs, took pictures, and spent some time with fans. He preached that Vegas will be a sports town if it isn’t already. Pickard, who spends his summers in Winnipeg, is nothing but excited to get started in Vegas.
He voluntarily joined the Vegas Golden Knights road trip and has been vocal about his excitement for the new challenge. He won’t be the starter this year but he very well could be the future goaltender in Vegas. Pickard, like many of the new Golden Knights fans in Northern Idaho on August 15th, is waiting anxiously for the season to get started.
Besides Pickard, there were staff and management who took part in the festivities in Coeur d’Alene. There were many fans who left with new Vegas gear at the pop-up store that was brought along with the team. It was the start to the week that everyone in Sin City wanted.
On a side note, there was a major marketing win over the weekend for Vegas, as Celine Dion was spotted wearing a Vegas Golden Knights jersey at her son’s hockey game.
Roughly four hours northeast of Coeur d’Alene was the next stop on the promotional road trip. The population of this small town is roughly 7,200, but the connection to the Vegas Golden Knights runs deep – team owner Bill Foley is a businessman who has properties and businesses within the town.
Senior Vice President and 18-year NHL veteran Murray Craven is also a resident of Whitefish. Craven summed up the purpose of the trip and the stop in Whitefish, saying:
“Lots of times when you grab a young person or fan’s heart, you keep it. Las Vegas isn’t New York City, it’s not Los Angeles, it’s not Chicago. We have 2.2 million people. The rest of the state is pretty empty. A lot of the territories we’re in are not heavily populated. We want to grab as many people as we can, as far as people in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and grab them and pull them into our vortex.”
The roots of hockey are planted in this town, more so than some of the other stops along the way, but that doesn’t mean that these young fans aren’t still looking for a team to cheer for. Many of the fans are linked to the Calgary Flames, being close to the Canadian border, but Vegas is the only professional hockey team these young fans will most likely see in their home town.
It is a safe bet to say that Whitefish, MT is not a normal stop for an NHL team to make, for any reason at all. On this day, however, it was the center of the universe for VGK and its newest fans. The day included an on-ice hockey clinic that included roughly 70 young hockey players, all of them decked out in Golden Knights gear.
All of these kids were of young enough an age where they are still looking for someone to look up to and be influenced to switch allegiances to a new team. There isn’t a much better way to do that then by interacting with NHL players first hand. Even if they are minor leaguers, the presence of professional hockey players on the ice is captivating.
There is a good chance that the two Vegas players in attendance in Whitefish, forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Jake Bischoff, gained some new members of their personal followings.
Vegas executives, including Foley, Craven, and Chief Marketing Officer Brian Killingsworth were also in attendance.
Much like in Coeur d’Alene, there was merchandise to be purchased and autographs to be signed for all people in attendance. Of note, Hall of Famer and hockey legend in Calgary, Lanny McDonald, joined the festivities in Whitefish, with his grandchildren taking part in the hockey clinic at the Stumptown Ice Den.
Another win for Vegas in Whitefish.
Deer Lodge, Montana
This stop of the road trip was short and not open to the public but beneficial to the Golden Knights game plan.
Vegas and their entourage rolled into Rock Creek Cattle Company on Thursday, August 17th for a private tour of the ranch. This may not seem to be of much benefit for the Golden Knights, but corporate and business ventures are important to Vegas. Businesses are the ones who buy suites and group packages. These groups and businesses, large and small, are a huge part of what the Golden Knights are trying to do. It doesn’t hurt that the Rock Creek Cattle Company was developed by Bill Foley.
Overall, the connections run deep in the towns that Vegas visited, and Deer Lodge is no different. However, by stopping in and meeting a few employees and talking to new people in Deer Lodge, maybe they gained a few fans or passed out more merchandise.
It might not seem like much, but when you are building from the ground up, every fan counts.
Two hours southeast of Deer Lodge was the next stop of the Vegas road trip, Bozeman.
The first obstacle to holding a hockey clinic in Bozeman was that there was no ice. For nearly half of the year, Bozeman doesn’t have ice in their arenas so any hockey clinic that would happen would be ball hockey.
That stopped no one in Bozeman from showing up to the clinic. About 150 little hockey players showed up, were quickly decked out in Golden Knights gear and ran around on the sheet of concrete shooting balls and learning little techniques that might come in handy one day.
Bozeman is a budding hockey town in the state of Montana. Ice is rarely available and there is high demand for a new rink. Hockey is picking up in this farming state that is more known for ranches that rinks. From six in the morning to midnight the rinks are full when the ice is in.
It simply is impossible for them to keep up with the demand for ice time. It isn’t just boys either – the girls flood the rink just as often as the boys, at all ages.
The Golden Knights, like they did in the stops prior to this one, were focused on making a big impact on a small town. The goal was to make something out of nothing, to roll into a town that had never seen a professional hockey team and convert the residents into Golden Knights fans.
Even with a fan favorite, Nate Schmidt, having to cancel his appearance due to an injury during off season training, fans turned up to show their support.
Apart from support, the people of Bozeman appreciated a professional hockey team thinking of their small town in “the Middle of Nowhere, USA”. It is one of the more unlikely spots for an NHL franchise to set up shop for a day but they made it work.
This road trip is just one way of proving that this team is not just a team thrown into Las Vegas for money and a sweet pit stop on your weekend getaway.
This team has a base; they appeal to the hardworking people in middle America just as much as any other team in the league. These towns, just like the Golden Knights, are trying to make their mark on the country.
This small pit stop and the many along the way on this road trip help to connect team and region in one of the most intimate and personal ways the NHL has seen.
Gary Lawless, a member of the Golden Knight’s media team, was in Bozeman for the event. Lawless made a passing comment in Bozeman that succinctly summed up the aims of the tour:
“We’re all about the Golden Knight, the knight, we stand up for one another, and we think people in Montana will gravitate to that.”
It seems strange that a team hailing from one of the busiest and more notorious cities in North America has their eyes on the small towns, but then again, the whole idea of hockey in Las Vegas doesn’t seem all that traditional either.
The people of Bozeman bought merchandise – lots of it. The kids who took part in the ball hockey clinic learned simple skills, like how to follow through their shot or how to stick handle a bit more efficiently.
The skills were taught, and they were taught with true care and authenticity, but the bigger picture was evident.
There will be a banner hanging in the local Bozeman rink for the foreseeable future that reads “Vegas Golden Knights Bozemen MT 2017.” All the stops on the Golden Knights road trip will receive one.
It’s a simple banner but it will hopefully forge a bond with kids, adults and everyone in between for a lifetime.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Six hours south of Bozeman is the pride and joy of Utah, Salt Lake City. This stop was a bit different because everyone knows about Salt Lake City. Salt Lake isn’t just a dot on the map.
SLC is established and not made from dirt roads so to speak. However, they are not nearly as hockey crazy as some American cities. To people from Salt Lake, hockey is all still relatively new to them.
Although a little different, the atmosphere was the same in Salt Lake as the smaller towns. Fans are excited for Vegas to have a team, fans are excited to learn about hockey, fans are excited to jump on the bus and be a part of the journey.
One fan who made the trip from a nearby town was candid when he said he wants to see a game live at T-Mobile at some point:
“We go to Vegas often, It’s the closest big thing to us. If I want to go see NHL hockey, it’s an easy drive. It’s cool to have, like [Golden Knights owner] Bill Foley say, a team of the Rockies. That kind of makes me feel welcome.”
It is fans like these, who attended the event with no skates or intention to go skating, that will determine if the intention behind this road trip comes to pass. He wanted to come to the event just to feel a part of it.
Vegas held an open skate for all fans or people with the slightest interest in the game of hockey. 320 kids showed up to check it out – and Vegas Golden Knights’ shirts on the backs of nearly every single one of them.
Head coach Gerard Gallant and assistant coach Mike Kelly were in attendance for the event. With the arrival of the coaches, this stop took on some added weight, befitting of the largest stop on the tour.
The coaches answered questions about their lineup and training camp. They were asked about expectations and star players. As someone who has been carefully following this road trip, I realized that this was the first time that the actual logistics of the team were discussed.
Vegas traveled thousands of kilometers across the Rockies and never once talked about the lineup. The true meaning of this trip really was spreading excitement. It wasn’t about anything other than the Vegas Golden Knights as an icon. Salt Lake City solidified that. You could tell, by interviews and pictures, that there were people in Salt Lake who are ready and yearning for a team to cheer for. They were rewarded on this day.
SLC was the biggest city on the road trip for Vegas, but this stop put it all into perspective: it was about the fans, and about leaving as many Golden Knights logos as possible in every city they stopped in.
Salt Lake City was special in its own right and solidified many as Golden Knights fans, but this was also the start of the beginning of the end of the summer for the Golden Knights. From here on in, it is about training camp, the lineup and who will help them win hockey games.
Soon, expectations will set in and pressure will mount. The athletes who will wear the Golden Knights’ logo will soon sink into the routine of a grueling hockey season. The very normal occurrences of hockey will soon be a reality.
New fans will be introduced to the ups and downs of a season. Old fans who convert to follow Vegas fans will find out what it means to cheer for an expansion franchise. The growing pains will most definitely be felt, but this past week was magical for the Golden Knights.
They set out to be the team of the Rockies. When the season kicks off, Las Vegas and the surrounding area will most likely be the sole beneficiary of Golden Knights community outreach, so this was the time to reach out to the Rockies.
Vegas and its media and marketing team passed this test with flying colors. They started a tradition that will bring fans back time and time again. The big city of Las Vegas finally has their very own team to cheer for, and now, so too do the towns and cities stopped at on this trip.
Calvin Pickard was candid when he mentioned in Coeur d’Alene that,
“If anyone had told me last August, I’d be in Coeur d’Alene representing an NHL team in Vegas I’d have thought they were crazy.”
It probably was a crazy thought back then, but not anymore. There was a common theme of fans who showed up to arenas on this road trip: they all wanted to be a part of something from the beginning. They wanted to be a part of the newest tradition in the NHL. They wanted to be a part of a team they felt welcomed at.
Vegas did that.
What happens on the ice is what most will be the focus from here on out, but putting that aside for the time being, on this road trip the Golden Knights had a perfect record.
As it said on the bus in which Vegas Golden Knights toured around on: Puck Drops Oct 10th.
See you there.
Were you a part of the Vegas Golden Knights’ road trip? Are you excited for puck drop? Will Vegas be your new team? Let us know in the comments below.
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