Wayne Gretzky in Las Vegas expansion mix; games to watch; more
Off The Draw
Some big developments over the weekend with regard to the NHL's possible expansion to the Las Vegas market:
First, how do you like the sound of the Las Vegas Black Knights? Potential owner Bill Foley told Hockey Night In Canada's Elliotte Friedman that he was partial to the name as a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The athletic teams at the school are called the Army Black Knights.
“The black knight, many people don’t know this, is actually the good knight,” Foley said. “And I think Black Knights would be a great name.”
He's right. The team, if it comes to be, could still end up with something appropriately desert-like — the Scorpions, Wranglers or Rattlers or whatever — but Black Knights is an off-the-wall choice that's just flat-out cool. It creates a unique identity and lends itself to myriad marketing opportunities.
And it wouldn't be the first NHL team nickname with a military origin. When Chicago coffee tycoon Frederic McLaughlin was awarded a franchise in 1925, he was inspired by his time as a commander in the U.S. Army's 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the 86th Division. The men in his division called themselves Black Hawks in honor of the Sauk Indian chief who sided with the British in the War of 1812. It's also thought that Conn Smythe renamed the Toronto St. Pats as the Maple Leafs in honor of the maple leaf regiment pins worn by Canadian forces in World War I.
Foley also revealed that he's getting some expert guidance from Wayne Gretzky as he navigates the tricky waters of expansion.
“I’ve always felt that it’s bad luck to start planning too far in advance,” Foley said. “But Wayne is an advisor — and he’s an advisor today and I’m sure he’ll be very helpful to us as we go forward.”
The two men have a longstanding business relationship that dates back to Foley's purchase of Gretzky's wine interests four years ago.
Gretzky has been considering a return to the game since by the league finally paid him the millions he was owed in the wake of the Arizona Coyotes sale, but he's been waiting for the right opportunity. Whether this advisory role expands into something more significant if Foley is granted a franchise remains to be seen, but there's no denying that he can be a significant ally during this process. He has eight years experience as an owner, and next to the commissioner no one'd calls are answered more quickly than Gretzky's. He also understands the value of building grassroots support in a non-traditional market and his name recognition could play a key role laying the foundation that's needed to ensure the success of the franchise.
Foley is scheduled to meet with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly this week to discuss the next steps in the season-ticket drive.
It's all hopes and dreams for hockey in Vegas at this point, but it sure feels like they're closer to coming true.
What to watch tonight
Lightning at Penguins (7 p.m. EST; NBCSN, TVA, SN, ROOT)
The Penguins have been kicking the Lightning around for years, winning nine straight games against Tampa Bay, but a battered Pittsburgh lineup suggests that streak could end here. Already without several key players, including first liners Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, the Pens lost Sidney Crosby (mumps) and Robert Bortuzzo (undisclosed) over the weekend. But Tampa shouldn't take anything for granted, even if most of Pittsburgh's roster is AHL caliber. Evgeni Malkin is a Lightning killer and will be looking to build on an eight-game scoring streak against the team (12-9-21). Marc-Andre Fleury has won six straight starts against the Bolts as well. If the Lightning hope to start a streak of their own, it'll need to start with the power play. One of the league's best units is mired in a 2-for-19 slump and has really been pressing the past few games. They'll be in good shape if they can get even one by Fleury tonight—the Bolts are 16-0-1 when they click with the extra man.
Also on the schedule: Senators at Sabres (7 p.m. EST; RDS, TSN5, MSG-B, BELL TV); Devils at Islanders (7 p.m. EST; MSG, MSG+)
What you may have missed
• The Reading Royals of the ECHL showed off their holiday spirit by donning some ugly holiday sweaters for a game against Wheeling on Saturday.
• The CWHL held its first-ever All-Star Game in Toronto, featuring 19 Olympians in Team Red's comeback win over Team White.
• What hockey commentary might sound like if figure skating broadcasters/fashion critics Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski were manning the mic.
The numbers game
• Don't look now, but the once beleaguered Maple Leafs are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, lead the NHL in home wins (13), have won 13 of their first 20 home games for the first time since 2001-02, and hold the East's first wild card playoff spot.
• Through the season's first 450 games, there have been 187 comeback victories (41.6%), including 81 games in which a team came back in the third-period deficit to win.
• The Rangers lead the NHL with seven shutouts, the first time since 1937-38 that the Blueshirts have tossed seven or more pails of whitewash on their opponents in their first 28 games of a season.
• Considering how much shade I've thrown at Rogers Communications over its handling of Hockey Night In Canada this season, I need to step up here and offer a big pat on the back for its sitdown with the owners of the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Flames. Some fascinating insight here into one of the most secretive aspects of the game.
• A very interesting note buried toward the bottom of Mike Russo's Sunday column explains the reason why there's only one Stadium Series game this season: a lawsuit filed by Flyers ticket holders.
• The Lightning are pushing hard for a new rule that would make goaltender interference calls subject to video review. They will continue to find several forces pushing back.
• Fascinating take here from Larry Brooks on the impact of the salary cap on the construction of a possible expansion team.