Las Vegas has long been the place where professional sports franchises come to die. From minor league basketball to indoor soccer to Canadian football to ice hockey, you could erect headstones that stretch from one end of Las Vegas Boulevard to the other … and possibly run out of room.
So the fact that the Las Vegas Wranglers hockey club is wrapping up its seventh season rivals the construction of Hoover Dam in terms of impressive accomplishments in Southern Nevada. Of course, because attendance has sagged this season and because of an ownership shift—minority owner Jonathan Fleisig recently acquired 100 percent of the team—rumors have been swirling that the Wranglers will soon be taking their place in the pro sports graveyard.
Enter team president Billy Johnson to halt the speculation that the Wranglers are on thin ice.
“If the gist of the question is, ‘Are we coming back?’ the answer is yes. The team will be here for a while, absolutely,” says Johnson, who has guided the front office since the Wranglers’ inception. “There always tends to be rumors when a team starts to lose or it’s not winning like it used to or you start to see a drop in attendance. Heck, when we were drawing 5,200 a game and were in the [ECHL] Finals two years ago, I heard rumors that we weren’t going to be around then. It gets to the point where you stop listening to it. But from an administrative point of view and a business-growth standpoint, we’re already working on next year.”
That’s obviously good news for the Wranglers’ fan base, which has seen the team reach the Kelly Cup playoffs in five of its first six years, including the last four in a row. And the Wranglers enter a three-game, season-ending series against the Ontario Reign (April 1-3) at the Orleans Arena with a great chance to extend that postseason streak.
That Las Vegas is even in such a position is quite a feat considering how the season began. First, Glen Gulutzan—the franchise’s first and only coach/general manager—left after last season to take over an American Hockey League expansion team. Ryan Mougenel, a veteran coach and former pro player, was hired as Gulutzan’s replacement and immediately had his budget slashed because of the poor economy. Still, he was able to build what he thought was a strong roster, only to see about a dozen players depart in the first several weeks (a few signed to play in Europe and several others were called up to the Wranglers’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio).
Las Vegas (32-29-8; 72 points) dropped 14 of its first 24 games and was at the bottom of the ECHL’s Pacific Division, but a six-game winning streak around the beginning of the year and another five-game run in March put the Wranglers back in the mix for a playoff spot. “We’ve come leaps and bounds over the past couple of months,” Mougenel says. “The biggest thing is guys are playing in a system they believe in now, and they know that the system works and they play hard for each other. And ideally that’s the culture I wanted to create.”
Going into the final weekend of the regular season, Las Vegas was in a group of seven squads (including Ontario) separated by five points in the standings. One of those six will be the odd team out when the playoffs begin April 7, which essentially makes the three-game set against Ontario a mini-playoff series.
Hence the reason Johnson and Mougenel are hoping fans show up in large numbers for the games against Ontario—and beyond if the Wranglers get into the postseason. They have reason to be encouraged, as the team’s home game on March 20 drew one of the largest crowds of the season when 6,300 packed the Orleans Arena.
It was the type of atmosphere that proved to Johnson, who has done little advertising this season for monetary reasons, that pro hockey is indeed alive and well in Las Vegas. “It’s no secret that our overall attendance is down, but I’m looking around and seeing more families at the arena than I ever have before, and I’m seeing a larger number of kids,” he says. “That’s telling me that we’re being discovered at a time when people need to find some really inexpensive things to do. … At the end of the day, a team that really doesn’t have a good perception or is at risk of going out of business is not going to draw 6,000 people just by accident.”