Wayne Gretzky thinks Golden Knights can boost hockey’s growth in the west

The Great One knows a thing or two about growing the game out west.

When Knights On Ice first launched, we published a piece about ice hockey in Las Vegas and how it’s going to work (you can read that here). Of course, we’re not the only ones who think that way. The great Wayne Gretzky also thinks hockey will be a smashing success in Vegas, which he adamantly believes should help popularize the game in the southwest.

Gretzky appeared on NHL Network’s NHL Tonight Wednesday and explained why he thinks Vegas is on track to becoming a successful hockey market.

“Well, first of all, you’ve got to have good ownership and it looks like they have strong, good, solid ownership,” Gretzky said. “And then they have to have good leadership, and Murray Craven is a tremendous man and I know he understands the importance of youth hockey in the area and he’s gonna do everything he can to expand and grow youth hockey in Vegas and in the surrounding area.

“Then you have to have a workaholic general manager, and I think George McPhee’s record speaks for itself. What he’s done in the past and how hard he works and how dedicated he is to making his teams the best teams that they can be. You know, now that I’m back in that division with Edmonton, I hope they don’t get too good, but I do pull for people who are good people and it is a good organization. I think they understand.”

Gretzky’s appearance on NHL Network not-so-coincidentally came on the 29th anniversary of his monumental trade from the Edmonton Oilers to Los Angeles Kings. His presence in Los Angeles played a huge role in the NHL’s westward expansion, but it was actually late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider who inspired the NHL’s eventual successes on the Pacific coast. According to Gretzky, it’s Snider’s vision with the Flyers that will make hockey prosper in the desert.

“We stole Mr. Ed Snider’s blueprint in Philadelphia,” he said. “He wrote a book about [how] you can’t have gimmicks, you can’t give away cars and you can’t give away prizes. The way to attract people is, A, you have to have a good team, and, B, most importantly, you have to have players that want to be out in the community and understand that youth hockey is important. You have to grow the sport. So we stole the blueprint of the Philadelphia Flyers in L.A. and hopefully, I’m sure the Vegas organization is gonna do the same thing.”

This is an exciting time for hockey in the southwest. The Golden Knights have a terrific cast of characters who will be effective ambassadors for growing the game in the desert. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, a long-time resident of Las Vegas, is already looking forward to helping grow the the game in the Valley. Goaltender Calvin Pickard is even letting local hockey fans design his goalie mask for the 2017-18 season. And let’s also not forget about Arizona native Auston Matthews, who took the NHL by storm with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.

Vegas may not be a conventional hockey market, but the enthusiasm to turn it into one is certainly alive and well, and it will be a lot of fun to see how far this ball can roll.