Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

A Small Town Cools Down, A Big League City Heats Up

As Las Vegas matures, some things are lost forever

It’s that time of year again: the mercury drops below 100 degrees. The summer, once so terrible, slinks off, toothless. We know that it will be back next May, just as strong, but we can feel a small bit of triumph. We have together survived another Las Vegas summer.

And just like that, Las Vegas is not quite so extraordinary anymore. It’s a little more like other cities, where you don’t have to finish an outdoor workout before 8 a.m. or chill infant car seats with icepacks. Every October, we gain something as we become less exceptional, but maybe we lose something: that sneering disgust at back-Easters whose heat waves might not crack 90 degrees, and also that not quite rational but still nagging feeling that, having paid our dues in the furnace of the summer, we aren’t overdue for a weather disaster. We come to miss our suffering. But we also dread it returning.

This October, though, is different, because one piece of our otherness is lost forever.

Until now, Las Vegas has been many things, but a big league town was not one of them. As the Vegas Golden Knights take the ice for the first time at T-Mobile Arena, that last vestige of small-town Las Vegas will be gone forever. The town will be in sports sections nationally, not just for boxing and mixed martial arts spectacles, but for the season-long grind of NHL hockey.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks.

The team itself claims to represent “Vegas,” that image of an image that we show to visitors, but make no mistake: this will be Las Vegas’s team. That will be great for hockey fans, just like the eventual arrival of the Raiders will be for football buffs. Being a big league town will make Las Vegas a bigger city, which is good, yes, but has some downsides beyond the not-great-but-not-terrible problem of too many fans and not enough parking spaces.

The biggest is that Las Vegas’ last claim to small-town status will be lost. Even after it broke the 2 million population mark in recent years, memories of tighter-knit times were not long off. I don’t have to look far to be reminded of that; the Thomas and Mack Center would be right out my window if my office had a window.

Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s Running Rebels united a growing Las Vegas that was not far from its maverick roots. When he took the reins of the UNLV basketball program in 1973, about 250,000 people called Clark County home. By the time his Rebels hoisted the NCAA championship trophy in 1990, it had tripled to 750,000. Yet Tark and the Rebels remained as beloved as any small-town heroes, and the whole town shared in their triumphs and travails.

The Golden Knights and Raiders will have passionate fans, of course. If either wins a championship, a parade down Las Vegas Boulevard will become part of the city’s collective memory. But it won’t be the same. There will be no Gucci Row for the city’s movers and shakers to publicly show their support; the rich and powerful will be ensconced in luxury boxes, probably more comfortable than a courtside chair, but less a part of the community.

Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Pro sports teams: Raiders fan

If the pro teams win, they’ll be cheered. If they lose, well, there’s always the other guys to cheer for. And even if the Rebels return to Tark levels of excellence, it won’t be the same. Another NCAA championship would be great, but it wouldn’t touch a Stanley Cup or NFL championship.

With the NHL and NFL moving in, Las Vegas as a whole will be at least a little less rebellious. We won’t be the place that the NFL doesn’t want you to hear about. Consider: not so recently, the LVCVA couldn’t buy a Superbowl commercial. In a few years, Monday Night Football establishing shots are going to be glamor shots of the Strip.

We won’t be rebels fighting the establishment. We will be the establishment.

And that’s really the logical place for Las Vegas to be in 2017. The gambling business is generations removed from its mob roots and has been thoroughly sanitized. Corporations have owned casinos for a half-century now. Casinos themselves are as American as Monday Night Football. Gambling has never been more widespread, and more people have never visited Las Vegas. Mission, as they say, accomplished. Las Vegas as a whole has benefited mightily from becoming part of the establishment.

But, as we celebrate both the meteorological and metaphorical cooling down that this fall in particular brings, we might want to take a moment to be wistful for that awful small-town summer heat that made us so different—and drew us together.

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