The love for hockey runs deep in Chuck Esposito. That tends to happen for someone born in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are hardly a second fiddle in the Windy City.
Esposito, the race and sports director at Sunset Station, has lived in Las Vegas for 35 years. Of course the prospect of a professional sports team finally coming to Sin City excites him. His eagerness to see the Vegas Golden Knights take that first face off at T-Mobile Arena matches the majority of Southern Nevada. That fervor is plain as day at his sportsbook, where Esposito has seen plenty of betting action from hockey fans with the season nearly two months away.
“We knew there was going to be excitement right away,” Esposito said. “Before we even had a name, we had props on the board.”
Prop bets can be the comedic lifeblood of the sportsbook. Most of the general public associates them with the Super Bowl, like how long it would take Lady Gaga to sing the national anthem or if the first touchdown would be scored by the punter running backward while singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But Esposito has taken advantage of the prop side before the Golden Knights became a thing in the NHL.
Bets like which player would score the first goal or how many points Vegas would finish the season with are the popular ones. But gamblers approaching the counter aren’t afraid to put their money where their mouths are — like picking the Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup at 250-1.
More so than not, Esposito said, gamblers just want to hold on to that ticket.
“You’ve seen it in other sports, especially baseball, where people just purchase the ticket as a souvenir,” he said, referencing the Chicago Cubs as a recent example last season when sportsbooks had a surplus in revenue due to uncashed tickets. “For the inaugural season, people want them to win but they want to have something to remember.”
Compared to the four major sports, hockey can be easily seen as the one sport that has the least betting action, especially during the regular season. Understanding the odds for a hockey game aren’t as easy as taking the New England Patriots at -10 against the New York Jets (I know, that’s a low number). When the NHL playoffs are on, though, it’s a different story.
There is an aura and uniqueness to the NHL’s postseason that the NFL, NBA and (maybe) MLB can’t replicate. Part of that has to do with the unknown factor — a Game 7 going into double overtime with a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals on the line, for example. The parity in the NHL allows for teams even in the most bizarre of “hockey towns” to compete right away. One look at the Nashville Predators last year tells the story.
Brian Blessing, host of the Vegas Hockey Hotline on KSHP 1400 AM and Sportsbook Radio, knows that feeling well. He covered the Buffalo Sabres during their run to the Cup final in 1999. To this day, he says Game 6 against the Dallas Stars never ended and is currently in the 10 millionth overtime. But Blessing remembers standing outside Marine Midland Arena with 10,000 people, watching a city (dominated by the Bills in the ‘90s) unite over hockey.
“If you’re knee deep and (a team) is going on a run, the people go crazy,” Blessing said. “That’s why it’s going to work here.”
The talk of hockey in the desert and Las Vegas not being a hockey town is heard loud and clear, which is why it was refreshing to see teams like Columbus and Nashville go on the runs they did last season. That’s also why Golden Knights owner Bill Foley has been adamant on his timetable of Vegas making the playoffs by Year 3 and winning the Stanley Cup by Year 8.
The NHL has given Foley the mindset that anything can happen. Maybe that, in hindsight, has rubbed off on those putting $10 on a 250-1 Stanley Cup ticket that will certainly not be cashed this season, but as Blessing put it promptly, Stanley Cups don’t grow on trees.
“Everything (Foley) touched seemed to work,” he said. “He has a defined passion. He’s not shy about it and he’s been brass about his goals. I love his passion.”
Esposito is keen on making Sunset Station the place to be for Golden Knights games this season. There will be viewing parties inside the sportsbook, along with a few other ventures that are still in the works. Gambling will forever be a part of Las Vegas. There’s no escaping that reality. The Golden Knights are playing hockey on the Strip, and the two will be synonymous for the foreseeable future.
The sports betting community, rather than simply embracing the betting spectrum, seems to be fully invested on just having a professional sports team in Las Vegas. The hope for the likes of Esposito and Blessing is the Golden Knights can reach that status of a Columbus or Nashville and make a run at a top seed or Stanley Cup one day.
Blessing was a commentator during the Las Vegas Wranglers days. He didn’t call many games, but he saw about 4,500 people pack Orleans Arena to watch an ECHL team play hockey. He said the Wranglers deserve a lot of credit for bringing the community together and providing a scene of what’s to come for the Golden Knights.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I think it’s a two-way street. Vegas gets a pro team, but Vegas is going to do wonders for the NHL.”