RCL Exclusive

How the Hell Did Las Vegas Get a Stanley Cup Favorite?

Sin City’s strange journey from being strictly off-limits to having a serious NHL contender.

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“While I was busy hating Vegas, and hiding from Vegas, a funny thing happened. I grew to love Vegas.”J. R. Moehringer

The Golden Knights have treated Las Vegas to an inaugural season for the ages. The NHL expansion team’s accomplishments include easily making the playoffs (they won their division), sweeping to victory in the first round and somehow becoming Stanley Cup favorites. How did this happen? And, even more bafflingly, how did pro sports come to embrace Sin City in the first place?

(In 2003, the NFL made a point of banning Vegas from even running ads during the Super Bowl. Just to make clear how they felt about the Strip, they also informed Vegas casinos that copyright laws restricted showings of the Super Bowl to screens with a diagonal measure of 55 inches or smaller.)

While before the season the Golden Knights had 200-1 odds of winning the Cup (easily the worst in the NHL), in hindsight their success makes a good amount of sense. They unquestionably benefited from a rule change aimed at enabling expansion teams to make stronger initial showings. The NHL limited existing franchises to listing either nine or 11 players as untouchable (depending on the positions they wanted to protect) during the expansion draft. Previously, teams could guard 12 or 15. This meant Vegas had access to a lot more talent than earlier expansion teams and they used it masterfully.

Here’s one example. Vegas convinced the Columbus Blue Jackets to give up their 2017 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick and David Clarkson in exchange for a promise that Vegas would leave some unprotected Blue Jackets alone. Vegas took the goodies and selected William Karlsson from Columbus … and he promptly finished third in the NHL in goals and first in plus/minus (no player in the NHL saw his team outscore the opposition by more when on the ice).

Throw in the “Vegas Flu”—the theory that a visiting team will decide they have better things to do in Sin City than sleep—and the Golden Knights have a fearsome home ice advantage. (They won 29 of 41 games in the regular season and the first two in the playoffs.)

 

It’s much crazier that Vegas has an NHL franchise in the first place and one from the NFL on the way. (The Raiders potentially arrive as soon as 2019.) Sin City was the gambling center of the universe, a place once viewed with such suspicion that sports books weren’t allowed to take bets on college teams that played in the state. (The rule was finally changed in 2001.)

What happened? Two major things:

-It became clear that was a lot of money to be made in Vegas beyond the slots and tables.

-America decided maybe gambling wasn’t so bad, after all.

This is a quick timeline of how Las Vegas grew (and the U.S.A. evolved along with it):

1931: Let the Games Begin. Seeking to energize the state economy in the midst of the Great Depression, Nevada’s legislature legalized gambling.

1946: Bugsy’s Bet. Mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his New York associates spent a million upgrading an existing property. It was not an immediate hit, but eventually caught on and you can still visit the Flamingo Las Vegas today. Siegel didn’t get to enjoy the success, as he was murdered in 1947. (You can learn more about him at the Mob Museum in Vegas.)

1971: The Brothel Bargain. Prostitution had long existed in parts of Nevada with a sort of tacit approval, but now it was official. This was far more restricted than gaming, however. Prostitution is forbidden in many parts of Nevada, including Vegas. (The Love Ranch, where former NBA star Lamar Odom was discovered unconscious in 2015, is about 70 miles outside the city.)

1973: Tark “The Shark” Time. Jerry Tarkanian transformed the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball team into the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, an often controversial but ultra-successful team that at times felt suspiciously like a pro franchise in their own right. He coached the team until 1992, with highlights of his stay including four Final Fours, a 45-game winning streak and the 1990 national championship.

 

1976: Atlantic City Gets in the Game. Suddenly Nevada didn’t have a monopoly as New Jersey voters approved gambling, though limited it to A.C.

1978: Beantown Bookmaking. Gamblers succeeded in tampering with college basketball. However, it happened across the country from Vegas with Boston College, largely driven by Henry Hill (the gangster turned informant immortalized in Goodfellas).

1988: Gambling Grows. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 allowed casinos on tribal lands.

1989: Desert Magic. With the opening of the Mirage Hotel & Casino (complete with “volcano” and featuring the illusionists Siegfried & Roy and their white tigers), Vegas began to establish itself as a destination people would want to go to even if they didn’t feel like gambling.

 

1992: Bring It to the Boats. Missouri approved gambling, provided it was restricted to riverboats. (Soon enough gaming would reach other states and even take to the land.)

2006: Mayweather Makes a Home. Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson both fought in Vegas, but they fought other places too. (Many of Iron Mike’s bouts happened in Atlantic City, while The Greatest roamed the globe, fighting everywhere from the Philippines to Zaire.) Floyd Mayweather, however, chose to box in Vegas exclusively. It was the site of his final 15 bouts, including the blockbusters against Manny Pacquiao (over $72 million just in ticket sales) and Conor McGregor (a $55.4 million gate). Quite simply, nowadays it’s a shock if a megafight doesn’t happen in Vegas. As Nevada Athletic Commission Executive Director Bob Bennett told RCL, “I do think Las Vegas will continue to be the fight capital of the world.”

Today: If you’re in the U.S. and you feel like gambling, you probably won’t have to drive too far to do it. (Well, maybe if you’re in Utah.) There are now dozens of American markets making hundreds of millions and even billions from gaming revenue. Throw in the growth of online gaming and the rise of gambling “alternatives” like fantasy sports and suddenly Vegas doesn’t seem that different from the rest of America.

When the NHL awarded Vegas a franchise in 2016 for $500 million, the vote was 30-0.

In 2017, the NFL approved the Raiders moving to Vegas by a vote of 31-1. (Yes, these are the people who seemingly didn’t even want Sin City watching the Super Bowl a decade earlier.) Only Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross objected. He did so not for any moral reasons, but just because NFL teams “owe it to the fans to do everything we can to stay in the communities that have supported us until all options have been exhausted.” (The Raiders will be the third team to relocate since 2016.)

Another major step in America’s open embrace of gambling could soon occur. The U.S. Supreme may lift a federal ban on sports betting. (Currently, it’s restricted to Nevada and, in limited forms, a handful of other states.) Supporters of the repeal feel it will be a blow to illegal gaming since gamblers will have more legitimate options.

Noted crime reporter George Anastasia begs to differ. He told RCL that, paradoxically, this could be a boon to organized crime: “In a strange way, I think it would help their operations.” Why? “When you bet in a casino or you bet legitimately, you can’t bet on credit.” (This is why he believes mobsters can still make “serious, serious money” in sports betting and loan sharking.)

Which is a reminder that no matter how much casinos clean up their images, you invariably don’t have to look too hard to find the sinning.