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Gary Bettman: Having Las Vegas in NHL will advance league
3:35 | NHL
Gary Bettman: Having Las Vegas in NHL will advance league
Tuesday October 25th, 2016

On any other game night, Kerry Bubolz would wander the concourse at Quicken Loans Arena, fulfilling his obligations as president of business operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tuesday’s season opener against the Knicks, however, is a special occasion, one that Bubolz will spend soaking up with his family, instead of schmoozing with fans.

“Yeah, I’m extremely anxious,” he says. “My guess is it will be a little bit emotional. Can’t wait.”

An entire city can relate. Spaced roughly one hour apart, squeezed along the same riverside block downtown, Tuesday night will witness the Cavaliers hoisting their NBA championship banner and receiving their rings, and the Indians beginning Game 1 of the World Series.

“You had 52 years of negative sports history, plus just some of the other what I’d call pile-on, whether it be the media or people’s perception of this great community,” says Bubolz, referring to Cleveland’s last major pro sports championship, a Super Bowl title in 1952. “The confidence it has now, it’s awesome. It’s staggering.”

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For the 50-year-old Bubolz, though, Tuesday holds even greater meaning. The night, in a way, represents his swan song with Cleveland–the city where he previously spent six years helping run the Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League; where he returned pre-LeBron to oversee business operations; where he now leaves for a new, grander challenge as president of the NHL’s unnamed Las Vegas expansion franchise, officially full-time come Nov. 1.

“It certainly made the timing much better,” he says. “But it wasn’t something where I said, ‘OK, now that this [championship] has happened, time to move on.”

Besides, the transition has been unfolding ever since Las Vegas owner Bill Foley announced Bubolz’s hiring Oct. 3. The three-hour time difference between sites has helped, allowing Bubolz to put in full days with Cleveland before handling Vegas business at home. As he speaks to SI.com on the telephone from his office at Quickens Loans Arena, the desk contains a desktop computer issued by the Cavaliers, a laptop from Vegas, two iPhone 6s, and several piles of papers that still need attention.

“Still looks a lot like it looked three years ago,” Bubolz says.

For several years now Bubolz had toyed with the idea of returning to the NHL. He cannot skate and never played but was still raised around hockey, attending Tulsa Ice Oilers on his father’s season ticket plan, “a couple hundred games over a five- or six-year period.” In 2000, he left the Lumberjacks to lead ticket sales for the Carolina Hurricanes. In 2002, he began filling a similar role for the Dallas Stars.

Kerry Bubolz, second from right, will oversee the creation of the NHL's Las Vegas expansion team as its president after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

His current gig (at least temporarily) arrived courtesy of CEO Len Komoroski, an old colleague with the Lumberjacks. In addition to handling marketing and communications for the Cavaliers, Bubolz also oversees Cleveland Operating Company’s three minor league teams, including the reigning American Hockey League-champion Cleveland Monsters, and serves on the AHL’s board of governors as an alternate.

“It’s not a big secret,” he says. “Hockey is my favorite sport.”

So while Bubolz wasn’t actively seeking to leave Cleveland–especially not while championships are suddenly gushing like fountain water–when someone from Turnkey Sports, a firm that headhunts executives, approached him about the Vegas vacancy in mid-August, he interest was piqued. After meeting with Foley in Vegas, and then again with their respective wives at one of the businessman’s wineries in Sonoma Valley, Bubolz was on board.

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As for why?

“The first part is the NHL,” he says. “The second piece is this is an expansion team. That made it unique. Then the opportunity to help build out a business team and a business organization…just knowing there’s a handful of people in the business office selling tickets, we have to fill out the rest of the organization.”

Indeed, while GM George McPhee has spent the past several months completing his hockey operations staff with almost 30 scouts, directors and analysts, Bubolz will arrive in Sin City next month to an ever-evolving org chart. For this season, Bubolz brought a 25-page launch plan to his initial interview with Foley, outlining everything from broadcasting to game presentation to youth hockey outreach to retail to how those separate areas would interact under his guidance.

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“A friend of mine used this analogy, but I’ll steal it because it made a lot of sense to me,” Bubolz says. “You know that Police song? Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you. I really think this applies to this type of scenario. All of the folks that purchased season tickets, the NHL, they’re going to be watching. The have a level of visibility that I think creates an extra level of responsibility that we need to take very seriously.”

For this, Bubolz will rely on his launch plan. The online season ticket system went live last week, allowing holders to select their seats at T-Mobile Arena. The team still needs to find a media rights holder, “a significant revenue rock” in Bubolz’s words, and its 120,000-square-foot suburban practice facility needs some company to sponsor the name. On Nov. 22, the team name and logo will officially be unveiled, at which point team stores can start stocking merchandise. There are unique lines to toe in Vegas, too; in-rink advertisements for local casinos must focus on “the actual entertainment acts,” Bubolz says, and not “the gambling side.”

“Someone who’s in our business would say there’s nothing unique, we did that five years ago,” Bubolz says. “But think about if you’re just starting the organization, what are the fundamental areas you have to do? There’s eight, 10, 11 first points that you need to be out when you’re launching in professional sports.”

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When Bubolz worked for the Hurricanes, during two prosperous seasons in the early 2000s, he noticed how many fans from other NHL markets had migrated to the Raleigh-Durham area and attended games whenever their favorite teams visited. Such is, he realized, the unique existence of clubs located in non-traditional, Sunbelt markets.

“Just because they’re fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins, for the two or three or four times a year we played them, we still could be their second favorite team,” he says. “As I think about Las Vegas, I know we’re going to have a similar scenario. We just have to think creatively about how we embrace that scenario. Ultimately, we don’t want to take away from our own home-ice advantage, but there is going to be an opportunity with all the transplants who live in the Las Vegas area. Early on, we have to embrace some of that.”

Bubolz will soon count himself among those transplants, of course, thrown headfirst into the challenge that awaits in the desert.

“This is going to be a disciplined sprint,” he says. “We want to move at a rapid pace, but we want to do it with a very disciplined, strategic, long-term view. We’re not just trying to be successful in our first year. We’re trying to build it in our long-term.”

But first, he and a certain city have some celebrating to do. 

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