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Gallant hopes bus tour helps Golden Knights build 'good franchise'

Coach greets fans at public skate in Salt Lake City

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SALT LAKE CITY -- Three weeks ago, Gerard Gallant was at home in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, when someone asked him to bring Vegas Golden Knights hats to an event. He tried to find some but couldn't.

His wife, Pam, called the Sport Chek store in Charlottetown, 40 miles away. The woman on the other end of the phone said the store had three left.

"Yeah, these hats are getting real popular," the woman told her. "We've got a big order coming in. You know, the coach from that team is from P.E.I., so we're going to have to have a lot of these hats."

Gallant's wife didn't tell the woman who she was, but reserved them.

"I had to go 45 minutes to buy three hats," Gallant said.

 

[RELATED: Golden Knights Road Trip Blog | Vegas caravan could help turn Montana into 'hockey state']

 

Gallant laughed as he told that story. He had to fly from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City on Saturday morning just for a three-hour public skate too, meeting the team staffers wrapping up the Vegas Golden Knights Road Trip through Idaho, Montana and Utah.

But that's the fun and excitement -- and opportunity and responsibility -- of being part of an NHL expansion team, especially as it is about to open its inaugural season. Veterans report to training camp Sept. 14. The Golden Knights' first regular-season game is Oct. 6 at the Dallas Stars.

"Obviously, we're trying to build a fan base," Gallant said. "It's going to take a lot of work, and it's going to take a lot of work from all our staff, not just the players. It's going to be the coaching staff. It's going to be the management and our office staff. You reach out. You do the events you can do.

"I mean, we know what's important is winning games, and that's how you build your hockey team also. The people that are working for our club, it's going to be a fine line of what to do and what not to do. But they'll pick the right times and do the right thing with our players, and I think it's going to be outstanding.

"We all know we're trying to build a good franchise here, and it starts with our fans."

Owner Bill Foley wants to give Las Vegas an identity beyond the Strip and to be active in the local community. But he also wants the Golden Knights to become the team of the Rockies, and their local TV territory includes Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and parts of Arizona and California.

So a team of media, social media and marketing people embarked on a six-day, 2,700-mile journey to reach out to places they couldn't during the regular season, with players and coaches popping in along the way. At each stop, they sold merchandise, gave away items and left behind banners to hang in the arenas.

Goaltender Calvin Pickard participated in a public skate in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on Tuesday. Forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Jake Bischoff participated in a hockey clinic in Whitefish, Montana, on Wednesday, along with senior vice president Murray Craven. The Golden Knights held a street-hockey clinic in Bozeman, Montana, on Friday.

Then came the finale: Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly participated in a public skate at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on Saturday, shaking hands and signing autographs.

More than 300 people attended, ranging from Vegas season ticket holder Mike England of St. George, Utah, who is trying to build an ice rink in his town and hopes to be affiliated with the Golden Knights, to kids like Colton Harding, 7, of Salt Lake City, who was wearing a Golden Knights T-shirt his dad brought him back from a trip to Las Vegas.

"It's insane," said Jack Gubler, 12, of Saratoga Springs, Utah. "Like, I've never even seen an NHL coach besides on TV, and so it's like, dang, this is cool."

"Who's your favorite team?" Gubler was asked.

"The Pittsburgh Penguins," he said.

"How about after this?" he was asked.

"The Pittsburgh Penguins," Gubler said.

OK, so like Gallant said, this is going to take a lot of work and, eventually, winning. But that's why this is important. The Golden Knights aren't taking for granted that if they build an NHL team, people will come. They aren't declaring themselves the team of the Rockies and thinking that will make it so.

They didn't know how many people would show up at these events, and they drew hundreds, not thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands. Yet they made the investment in time and money to do it. If they drew some attention, if they connected with some fans, if they created some new fans, it was worth it.

These are humble beginnings. The hope is that they will make this an annual thing, a tradition, and visit other towns in the future, growing their brand, growing the game. Don't discount the impact a personal connection can make, especially in a place where the NHL doesn't have a team.

"Obviously the NHL is just that other level," said Tyler Wahlberg of South Jordan, Utah, whose 11-year-old son, Dylan, a Chicago Blackhawks fan, was wearing a Golden Knights hat. "Obviously it brings more attention and more awareness, makes the kids that much more excited to get into the sport and enjoy the sport, kind of live it, make it a lifelong thing."

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