All In: Behind the scenes with the Golden Knights, Vegas's first major league franchise

Monday January 9th, 2017

The billionaire who delivered major league sports to Las Vegas rides in a black SUV with tinted windows and private security at the wheel, an ex-military man like himself. Outside, the sun sets on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving—first over the peaks of Red Rock Canyon, then over the quiet desert suburbs of Summerlin, where his purchase of a house in March 2015 earned coverage in the local papers. A few years ago, when Bill Foley was merely providing title insurance from Jacksonville, bottling wine in Napa Valley and running 30,000 acres of western Montanan ranchland, the public had no interest in his daily doings. That was preferable. "I don't like being out in front of people, having to be on all the time and talking," the 71-year-old Foley explains in the car. "I'm more reclusive."

In this case, he chose an odd combination of site and subject for his latest venture; few, after all, seek out Sin City or sports ownership in a desire for anonymity. He remembers life changing fundamentally on June 22, when the NHL's board of governors met at the Wynn hotel and unanimously granted Foley's ownership group an expansion franchise, the league's 31st team and the first in Vegas. After the press conference, as Foley walked across the casino floor, a fan charged up and coaxed him into another milestone. "I'd never taken a selfie," he says, with a broad smile and baritone laugh. Around here, he's found, that combination disarms better than the hired muscle.

Exactly five months later Foley again heads toward the Strip, this time to his team's new rink, T-Mobile Arena. He's wearing a button-up shirt with VEGAS HOCKEY stitched onto the breast pocket. By his usual standards this counts as overdressing, but special occasions call for collared attire. In an hour or so Foley will finally unveil the franchise nickname and logo to a crowd of more than 5,000. No more anonymity, no more waiting, no more Las Vegas TBDs. "I've been exhausted," he says. "I just want to get it done, get out of here. Let's get on with it."

He flips through some speech notes. "A simple talk," he promises, though this evening is a culmination of a much longer story, which SI will cover in depth over the next 10 months. It starts with an impatient Army brat paired with a locally rooted family, both rich and motivated enough to make history. Success required the financial might of Las Vegas Boulevard's neon properties, of course, but also support from much of the area's almost 2.2 million residents: ironworkers laying rebar, electricians wiring marquees, lawyers, bartenders, singers, the Pawn Stars star.... The expansion fee alone cost $500 million—more than 1.5 times what Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota and Columbus combined paid in the NHL's last round of expansion—most of the outlay pulled from Foley's personal fortune. The ultimate reward will come next fall when the first puck drops.

NHL
A man of many hats, Murray Craven is the Las Vegas Golden Knights' master builder

Tonight's chapter takes place on a stage in the plaza between New York-New York and Monte Carlo. There, children skate beneath a 30-foot Christmas tree. Television cameras cram onto risers. Technicians assemble pyrotechnics. Fans have gathered on the parking deck and more peek through hotel room curtains, all to learn what the latest attraction in town will be called. The SUV moves through traffic, inching closer. "Look at that," Foley says of the spectacle. "That's impressive, isn't it?"

AT the suite level of T-Mobile Arena, on an outdoor glass balcony overlooking the scene, the Very Important People of Las Vegas hockey gather for a pre-party. In the back, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman chats with George McPhee, the team's GM since mid-July. MGM Resorts International CEO and chairman Jim Murren, whose company co-owns the building with Anschutz Entertainment Group, mingles with the crowd. Joe and Gavin Maloof, brothers and minority stakeholders under Foley, are here. So is Clark County commissioner Steve Sisolak, who oversees the Strip in his district and bought the very first season tickets in February 2015. Most guests in attendance made deposits, like Sisolak, which is how they scored their invitations.

Forty-five minutes until the unveiling, security clears a path behind the open bar, and Foley enters to a salute of cellphones, mainly raised by fans in hockey jerseys. One particularly audacious supporter of the L.A. Kings asks for a picture with Foley and Bettman; another selfie for the record books, on what the commissioner earlier called "the beginning of the era of having the team in concrete fashion."

Three years ago, when expansion to Las Vegas was just talk, none of this really seemed possible. The NHL was still regrouping from its partial-season lockout of 2012--13, and business-side rumors focused more on relocation than growth. The area behind the New York-New York roller coaster contained offices and parking lots, not a $375 million arena featuring a velvet-roped nightclub in the rafters offering bottle service. The market itself remained largely unproven too, its pro sports history amounting only to minor league hockey, arena football, Triple A baseball and a few NASCAR events.

"Some owners were afraid of Las Vegas," Maloof says. "It was fear of the unknown. They didn't understand the city."

Then there was the local ... reputation. "Some owners were afraid of Las Vegas," says Gavin Maloof, whose family at separate times has owned the NBA's Rockets and Kings. "It was the fear of the unknown. They didn't understand the city. When you say Vegas, they go, 'Ooo, I don't know, is the mob there?'"

A brave few had tried. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly remembers former mayor Oscar Goodman taking a late-1990s visit to New York City, where he pitched both the NHL and the NBA. In the early 2010s, Chris Milam's proposal for a sports complex fizzled amid allegations of fraud leveled by the city of Henderson. A bid for a soccer team that included a $200 million stadium plan was rejected by MLS in February 2015. Former NBA player Jackie Robinson's All Net Resort and Arena project has been slow to gain traction. "Most of those you get aren't real," Bettman says generally about expansion pitches. "There's somebody who has a good idea but doesn't have the resources."

Then along came the Maloofs, friends of Bettman's since the 1980s, when the commissioner worked as the NBA's general counsel. The family had already lobbied once for hockey in Las Vegas, with success: Its off-strip property, Palms Casino Resort, hosted the annual NHL awards ceremony from 2009 to '11. So as the Maloofs finalized their sale of the Kings in May '13, they called Bettman to meet. "He didn't say no," remembers Gavin Maloof, second of George and Colleen's five children. "He didn't say yes. He said, 'I'll think about it.'"

That cracked the door, but the Maloofs needed a business partner to assume majority control and be, Gavin says, "the front man." Through a mutual contact, they soon learned of a billionaire in Florida who had previously explored buying the Jaguars and still wanted to break into sports. Gavin and Joe flew to Jacksonville for an icebreaking meeting, dressed in new suits—unusual for the laid-back brothers. "We go into Bill's office, and he comes out in jeans and a T-shirt," Gavin says. "He goes, 'What are you guys all dressed up for?' That was the time we knew we were going to have a good relationship."

In Foley, the Maloofs found an ideal match. He didn't have much of a sports background beyond skating on frozen ponds as a first-grader in Ottawa, where his soldier father was stationed, and three years swimming at West Point. Oh, and some ex-NHLers lived near his property on Whitefish Lake in Montana—that was about it. But while Joe and Gavin brought insider knowledge of Las Vegas, Foley had experience building businesses from bare bones. "A serial acquirer," Foley calls himself, and over time his acquisitions had given him plenty of cash to spare.

NHL
Misha Donskov playing a vital role in getting Las Vegas off the ground

After graduating from West Point, some $40,000 richer from playing the stock market in his spare time, Foley transferred to the Air Force, where as an officer he negotiated million-dollar defense contracts with Boeing, and then moved into corporate law upon earning his J.D. from Washington in 1974. A decade later he bought and revitalized a struggling title insurance firm called Fidelity National Financial, which now ranks 311th on the latest FORTUNE 500 list, two spots behind his now landlord on the Strip, MGM. He has since padded his portfolio with a grab bag of investments: wineries, golf courses, hotels, ski resorts, steak houses, fast-food joints, auto parts manufacturers.... "And then hockey," says Peter Sadowski, Foley's longtime legal counsel. "It was like, 'Well, of course. We've got to do it.'"

Why so eager for Las Vegas, though? Here Foley speaks like a businessman. "It was affordable," he says. "I can deal with the money. It's in a favorable tax state from a personal standpoint, and it's a place that I don't mind being. It's a neat town." But even he admits that at first he wasn't, in local parlance, all in. "I thought this would never happen," Foley says. "I didn't really take it seriously until we started running that ticket drive."

AS security whisks Foley to a live television hit, Bettman goes to the balcony edge and surveys the scene. He sees the golden Monte Carlo sign, shimmering overhead. The pop-up rink buzzes with players from the local youth teams. The parking deck is crowded enough to resemble a football tailgate. "Look at all the jerseys," the commissioner says. Blue Jackets, Avalanche, Flyers ... each one, it seemed, except the NHL's newest team. "Now this is Las Vegas."

Yes, the local bigwigs had their role here. AEG, who owns the L.A. Kings, and MGM, which had previously hosted the Kings' annual preseason Frozen Fury game at its Grand Garden Arena, were independently planning to build an arena outfitted for pro basketball and hockey. Foley's group eventually signed a lease with them to become an anchor tenant, which fulfilled two basic requirements for the NHL: a turnkey arena and a committed owner who could foot the bill. (Foley had certainly proved himself the latter, moving some of his business operations to Summerlin and buying a home there. "That was a big step for me," says Murren, the CEO of MGM. "I don't think I would've had any interest in a hedge fund guy living in New York City, who thinks it's cool to own a hockey team and wanted a nice toy to play with.") It also helped that greater Las Vegas's population had increased by 50.6% since 2000, and that a whopping 42 million tourists visit the city annually—including, as the Maloof-Foley group noted in its first presentation to the NHL, more than 1.5 million Canadians.

"People were giving deposits on a team that might never exist," Bettman says. "I don't think that's ever been done before."

In December 2014, the league allowed Las Vegas to begin selling season-ticket deposits as a way to demonstrate the market's capacity for hockey. Among several guidelines: Sales were limited to groups of eight or fewer and only credit cards linked to greater Las Vegas zip codes were accepted. "Don't do it with the casinos. Don't do it with big businesses," Bettman says. "See if there's grass roots, indigenous support." There was just one problem: "None of us knew how to do a ticket drive," Foley says.

So the Maloofs, naturally, hosted a party in the penthouse apartment of the Palms, to which they invited a group of local power brokers—including pro poker player (and Toronto native) Daniel Negreanu, Bellagio COO Randy Morton and Rick Harrison, of Pawn Stars fame. The so-called Las Vegas Founding 75 were charged with spreading the word.

Accustomed to seeing prospective owners crap out, residents needed convincing. "The response was, either directly or indirectly, 'That's great. Good luck. We've heard this story 50 times,'" Sadowski says. "It was like the boy who cried wolf." So the group bought highway billboards and two 15-second commercials that aired locally during the Super Bowl. Foley traveled around the suburbs, speaking in sports bars, churches, country clubs, the Italian-American Club.... At each event, small crowds watched a sizzle reel of Frozen Fury footage, ending with a video message from Governor Brian Sandoval: "This year marks Nevada's 150th anniversary of statehood. There would be no greater gift than having a National Hockey League franchise awarded."

Sales hit 5,000 two days after the drive launched on Feb. 10, and struck 10,000—the ultimate goal—in late March. Given that the league hadn't committed to a formal expansion process and the arena was still under construction, such enthusiasm was remarkable. "People were giving deposits on a team that might never exist," Bettman says. "I don't think that's ever been done before."

The board of governors finally green-lighted expansion applications in June 2015. Two cities submitted: Quebec City and Las Vegas. After a nearly yearlong vetting process, which for Vegas included an audit of its ticket drive, the NHL's executive committee recommended expansion on June 7. Two weeks later, Daly texted Sadowski to relay the board of governors' vote: 30--0 in favor of Las Vegas. (Quebec City's bid was deferred.)

NHL
McPhee, Las Vegas planning ahead for uncertainty of expansion draft

The town rejoiced. Sadowski got a call from a friend at a nearby bar, where patrons had erupted into applause when the decision was announced on local news. Nehme Abouzeid, now the team's chief marketing officer, who was working for the Wynn at the time, recalls his colleagues high-fiving as they walked to a meeting. At the press conference the county commissioner Sisolak gave Bettman a street sign that read NHL HOCKEY BLVD.

Inside the group a different emotion took hold. Murray Craven, an ex-NHL forward who advised Foley on the bid, remembers telling him, "I don't know how you feel, but [I feel] more of a relief than elation." Landing a team was a singular mission, but success would bring hundreds of new tasks.

"It's different than closing a deal, or arguing in court," Sadowski says. "You try a case, you win a case. Here, the real job started after that. It felt like the end, but it was really the beginning. Now Bill had to build this thing."

IT'S dusk now, stage right, five minutes before the ceremony. The heavy hitters of Vegas hockey are packed together onstage. In the back, some of the 100-plus credentialed reporters are squeezed even tighter. The music blasts. Bettman scans the parking deck and does some math under his breath. Six levels high. Four openings across. So that's ... how many fans up there? "I've never seen anything like this," he concludes. "Not to name a franchise."

"Nobody knows how it will take shape," Abouzeid says. "To me, this is just the next great headliner on the strip."

Five months of waiting had indeed built suspense among fans, but an organizational identity was already taking shape behind the scenes. First Foley began with hockey operations, interviewing four GM candidates at his lakeside Montana cabin in July. He landed on McPhee, who had guided the Capitals for 17 years until April 2014. Like Foley, McPhee had experience in ground-up reconstruction; he gutted Washington in the early '00s, establishing what continues today as the Alex Ovechkin era.

Eventually a staff of 40-plus formed beneath McPhee. Old connections came in handy: Director of hockey operations Misha Donskov had worked with him on Team Canada, and goalie coach Dave Prior once filled the same role with the Capitals. Altogether, it's a mix of grizzled experience and young talent. Pro scout David Conte, for instance, spent 31 seasons with the Devils; amateur scout Raphael Pouliot is 25 years old.

On board full-time as senior VP since mid-August, Craven handled big-picture tasks. He spearheaded the design of the 105,000-square-foot, two-rink practice facility in Summerlin, crowd-sourcing ideas from equipment managers around the league, and amended the T-Mobile Arena locker rooms to meet NHL standards before the preseason Frozen Fury game in October. He engaged locals, meeting with UFC brass, and even spent six hours backstage at Cirque du Soleil's Love, trailing the head coach and observing the medical staff. "They've got the biggest athletic team in town," he says.

But unlike the Strip's shows, which cater exclusively to tourists, NHL games must attract traveling fans and local diehards alike. For this reason Foley built his business team around both Abouzeid, the former Wynn executive, and Kerry Bubolz, fresh off a title run as the Cleveland Cavaliers' president of business operations. "Nobody knows how it will take shape," Abouzeid says. "To me, this is just the next great headliner on the Strip."

Still, the on-ice cast won't assemble until next June's expansion draft, and McPhee insists on patience regarding a head coach, wanting to wait until the end-of-season rubble settles. Save some sponsorship deals, Foley's direct role will decrease, but that hasn't stopped the owner from imagining trips with McPhee to pitch free agents next summer. And he recently installed an iPad app to watch shifts of potential targets from home. "I'm not a guy who can just go, 'Here are the keys to the car, take a spin,'" Foley says.

NHL
After celebrating with NBA's Cavs, Kerry Bubolz turns to Las Vegas expansion

Which perhaps explains the nickname and logo delays—both had to be just right. Foley certainly hadn't decided on one the night after the board's vote, when he hosted a celebration at Fidelity's offices. A local lounge act sang. Hockey-themed centerpieces adorned the tables. An ice sculpture had been carved to read VEGAS NHL. Sisolak passed out foam rubber pucks to the hundreds who attended. Then Foley took the mike. It felt like the perfect moment for a battle cry.

"Gooo... " he said, trailing off, unsure of what should come next, "... whoever we're going to be!"

GIVE Foley credit. The Las Vegas Whoever We're Going to Be's rings truer than what flashes on the video screen after the countdown video malfunctions during the ceremony: PLACEHOLDER VEGAS HOCKEY. Also give Foley credit for how he plays off two failed reboot attempts: "We're gonna do better on the rink, I'll tell you that."

What is a little more waiting, after all? Foley had wanted to call the team the Black Knights, a nod to his alma mater, but he ran into trademark issues. "I was causing consternation, let's put it that way," Foley says. "I didn't want to do that." A brainstorming session then ran the gamut—"different kinds of reptiles, Scorpions, Rattlers, Sidewinders"—but he couldn't shake Knights. A West Point fight song is framed on the wall of his office; an oversized knight chess piece holds up the books behind his desk. The image means something to him. "The epitome of the warrior class," he says. "Always going forward, always advancing."

Ad-libbing, Foley counts down from 10. T-shirts and pucks begin parachuting from a helicopter, and the pyrotechnics launch as a shower of streamers falls on the crowd. Onto the arena facade pops the logo, a storm-gray-and-gold medieval helmet with a V sliced into the mask. And along the Strip, 11 properties flash the name on their glittering marquees, welcoming the newest spectacle in town—the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights.

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