Hockey in the Air-Conditioned Nightmare

A guy I once knew boasted that he had seen everything Europe had to offer, even though he had never been across the Atlantic.

            He had seen the canals of Venice along with Doge’s Palace and the San Marco Campanile, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the pyramids of Giza (which aren’t in Europe, but who’s counting?)

            To me, the various monuments are the least of Europe’s attractions, but this gentleman didn’t need Europe because he had already seen it in Las Vegas, that air-conditioned nightmare (Henry Miller’s phrase, not mine) in Nevada, a wholly artificial construct founded by organized crime and now run by a different sort of organized crime as a highly efficient means of separating visitors and their money. At least when the mobsters were in charge, Vegas had a tacky kind of soul – now it’s simply Disney World with gambling, a place where Mom and Dad can lose the beach house at the tables while the kiddies pay $42.51 a pop to try Go-Kart racing.

            I’ve been to Las Vegas only once, to cover the Michael Olajide-Frank Tate fight in 1987. The city was in transition then, from the Mob Madness of Casino to Desert Disney. I remember most the flyers for prostitutes that were plastered everywhere and the fact that everything was so cheap and there were no windows. You could get a handsome breakfast anywhere, at any hour of the day, for $1.99, because you were there to gamble, not to eat. Same reason there were no windows – they didn’t want you to peek outside, notice that the sun was up, realize that you had been gambling all night and toddle off to bed while you still had money to lose.

            When I left my hotel room to try my luck, I took exactly $50, figuring that I could afford to lose that much and that betting five dollars a pop at the blackjack tables, I could win enough to extract an hour’s entertainment from the experience, if nothing else. In less than a minute, the fifty was gone – these people don’t mess around.

            After that, I wandered around the tables and stopped to watch one gentleman who was flanked by security guards as he gambled. He lost his money as efficiently as I did, chatting amiably with the guards as his chips were raked away.

            I would not have known how much he was losing, except that there was a dentists convention going on at the hotel, and several dentists and their spouses had paused to watch. “How much are those gold chips worth?” a wife asked her dentist.

            “They’re worth five thousand dollars each,” he told her, as another chip vanished into the maw of the casino.

            “Omigod!” she shrieked. “He just lost a whole dining room set!”

            And on that note of unwelcome reality, I walked away, chuckling.

            I have one connection to Las Vegas. My father spent much of the last 10 years of his life training horses there. A casino called Circus Circus was opening on the Strip, they had planned to have horses running on a conveyor belt pulling a chariot (Vegas was over the top even then, in the 1970s) and several trainers had failed to persuade the animals that conveyor belts were not the ideal racetrack for horses. Someone mentioned that there was a crazy old man in western Nebraska who could trade a horse to prance on its hind legs while whistling Dixie and my father was flown out to the desert to try his luck.

            He stayed for a decade, although he came home to Nebraska during the hottest months of the summer. Sadly, I don’t know whether he succeeded with the chariot and the conveyor belt, but he did train horses for Wayne Newton, among other celebrities. A lifelong non-smoker, he also shot a television commercial for a Japanese company in search of an authentic American cowboy on horseback, which he was.

            I don’t know much about his life in Las Vegas except that every morning began the same way: he would get up before dawn and ride a horse he was working out into the desert to take the sass out of it before they got down to serious work. I envy him those desert sunrises – the dark beauty, the silence, the mystery.

            Other than the connection to the perennial Wayne Newton, my father’s Las Vegas bore no relation to the strip, the mob, the gambling or its future of European monuments and the exotic sport of ice hockey.

            With temperatures in Las Vegas hitting the mid-40s Celsius this week, I questioned the validity of establishing hockey franchises in the desert at all and was taken to task by a former hockey writer turned NHL flack. He considers Las Vegas a great place to watch a game, while I believe that desert hockey is part of an unsustainable bet that vast energy-burning, water-consuming cities can endure in this climate at a time of radical climate change.

             He argued that the only reason the Las Vegas Golden Knights are playing hockey now is because the pandemic delayed the playoffs – but that isn’t strictly true. This is roughly the time of year the Stanley Cup final usually ends and the team the league has built in the desert (with some help from the stupidity of NHL GMs) is fully capable of winning a Cup. And if temperatures can go as high as 47 degrees in mid-June, they can climb that high in May.

            Given the reality outside, the fact that the ice apparently held up well inside is a minor miracle. From a television perspective, the ice seemed better than it was in Toronto with temperatures outside the Air Canada Centre in the teens.

            Unfortunately, the game experience did not match the ice, and I’m not talking about the result. From the grating voice of the public-address announcer to the beach ball, it’s Mar-a-Lago on ice, all of it tuned to the sensibilities of the former president whose idea of class is a golden toilet. If you have suffered through an NHL awards show since the production moved to Las Vegas, you have already experienced a Knights game – hook, line and kitsch.

            The Vegas franchise is the end product of the most recent stage of the NHL’s pyramid scheme, in which you buy in at a certain price, then wait for the next sucker in line to pony up even more so you can share in the largesse. The next stage is the Seattle Kraken, with long-suffering franchises like Buffalo and Ottawa forced to pony up players to make the Kraken instant contenders.

            At least Seattle is a viable hockey market, and we can imagine a franchise there 25 years from now. Las Vegas? I have felt from the beginning that this is a team that would thrive until the initial impetus provided by the league expires. Fans in Las Vegas have already been spoiled by instant success – but how many will hang on once the team hits a bumpy five-year stretch? Are there enough visitors needing a break from the tables to sustain a franchise?

            I remain dubious. As Canadiens fans jump off the bandwagon following that Game 1 loss to Mar-a-Lago West, they can console themselves with the thought that the Canadiens will be in Montreal in 2050. The Knights in Las Vegas?

Hey, remember when Gary Bettman actually thought you could sustain an NHL franchise in the desert?

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