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Golden Knights attracting new fans with Spanish radio broadcast

Lopez's soccer-style goal call helping introduce hockey to Hispanic audience

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- Maybe you know hockey but not Spanish. Maybe you know Spanish but not hockey. Doesn't matter. Just listen.

When the Vegas Golden Knights score, like they did over and over in their 7-0 win against the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round on Thursday, Jesus Lopez takes a deep breath and holds out his hand like an opera singer in his booth at T-Mobile Arena.


He takes another deep breath.



[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Sharks series coverage]


It sounds like soccer, the beautiful game. But it's hockey, a beautiful game too, broadcast in Spanish to a new audience in Las Vegas on ESPN Deportes 1460 AM.

Video: Golden Knights take Sharks by storm (in Spanish)

It's yet another way the Golden Knights, an NHL expansion team and Las Vegas' first major league sports team, are growing the game and uniting the city. The story behind it involves a Disney cartoon and reads like a Disney movie.

"I know it's no easy task to replace soccer with hockey in the Hispanic community, but we have this slogan: Once is all it takes," Lopez said. "Once the people see a game, they're going to fall for it. It's as easy as that. People may say, 'I don't like it.' How come you don't like it if you've never been to a game? Once you are inside the arena and you see how it works and everything, it's just different."

* * * * *

The Las Vegas metropolitan area is a diverse mix of 2.2 million people. Hispanics are 30 percent of the population and the fastest-growing group economically.

"[Owner Bill Foley] wants us to be involved in the community, and this is an important part of the community," Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz said. "It's a third of the market."

When the Golden Knights explored potential radio partners, they wanted three things: AM, FM and Spanish. Lotus Broadcasting could do all three with ESPN Deportes 1460 AM in its portfolio.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers had done Spanish broadcasts, but there was no template otherwise. Lotus Broadcasting vice president and general manager Tony Bonnici had planned to hire someone with experience from outside the market but grew frustrated, so he decided to look at people who he knew could do soccer, figuring they could learn hockey.

Lopez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and grew up in the small town of Ocotlan about a half-hour from there. He had little hockey knowledge other than going to a few Los Angeles Kings games and following Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

But he had lived in Las Vegas since 2011 and had a sports comedy show on ESPN Deportes 1460 AM called "Cantina ESPN Las Vegas." He was creative and funny -- a ventriloquist, he would do 20 voices with a puppet on the show -- and had experience broadcasting soccer and boxing on radio and TV in Mexico.

He was also adventurous and hard-working. This is a guy who had worked in the fishing industry in Alaska like on the TV show "Deadliest Catch," managed a restaurant in southern California and been in the family business running several pizzerias in Mexico.

"It's a challenge," Lopez said. "But I love challenges."

Bonnici told Lopez to watch hockey and practice calling games as animated as if he were doing soccer. At first, Lopez was just OK.

Lopez tried to Google information about hockey play-by-play in Spanish. He found nothing. What he did find was a Disney cartoon called "Hockey Homicide" in Spanish, with Goofy-like characters playing hockey to the play-by-play of a Colombian voice.

Watch: Youtube Video

"It's a very special soul that you have to add to this sport," Lopez said. "Hockey has a world of its own. You cannot compare it to anything else. No. 1, it's so fast, right? You have to modulate how you do the play-by-play in order not to lose the sense of what's going on in the rink. So when I heard that guy and the sentences that he used for that cartoon, I go, 'That's what I want to do.' So I listened to that cartoon over and over, day and night, just to get the feeling."

Lopez tried again.

"Then I heard the tape, what he was doing, and it was better," Bonnici said. "I kept telling him, 'Feel free to go for it.' … We're trying to reach a community that doesn't normally watch hockey. We need to entertain them in a way and do it in a way that we already know is being done, and there's a reason it's done that way."

Bonnici sent tapes to Bubolz for approval. The Golden Knights had a third party review them. Lopez got the gig.

Before the season, Lopez introduced himself to Dan D'Uva, the Golden Knights English radio voice on KRLV 98.9 FM and Fox Sports Radio 1340 AM. Lopez asked questions; D'Uva talked shop. When D'Uva sensed he was getting too technical, he stopped.

"I said, 'But it all comes down to one thing: Can the listener hear the smile in your voice?'" D'Uva said.

Lopez smiled.

* * * * *

When the Golden Knights held the ceremony at their home opener Oct. 10, honoring victims, families and first responders nine days after the mass shooting on the Strip that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more, it united the community.

"It was like the medicine for Las Vegas after what happened in October," Lopez said. "They eased the pain big-time. I believe if it wasn't because of this team we'd be mourning still. It brought so much joy. It was a magical thing. And I think that connection was with not only the Anglo side but the Hispanics, the Asians. It was a very touching thing."

When the Golden Knights won and won and won, it excited the community. Lopez broadcast about 20 home games in the regular season, roughly one a week, learning on the fly, adding elements like the soccer-style goal call. He is doing each home game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has a 15-minute segment on his show called "Caballeros de la Mesa Redonda," or "Knights of the Roundtable." It is streamed online, and he has received calls and messages from not just Nevada but Oregon, New York and Florida -- and even Croatia, Ukraine and Russia.

"Now people are asking a lot of questions about hockey, the rules," Lopez said. "I'm amazed about the impact that this had created into the Hispanic community."

Bubolz said the Golden Knights are looking to expand their Spanish radio broadcast and reach out in other ways. With money from the NHL/NHL Players' Association Industry Growth Fund, they're starting a street-hockey program in the Clark County School District, 60 percent of which is Hispanic. By August, 80,000 students across 65 middle schools will be playing street hockey once a week. The Golden Knights are receiving proposals from local agencies that are experts in marketing to the Hispanic community and at some point will have staff dedicated to it.

"If you don't like hockey, you may appreciate it, but it will never be a part of your soul," Lopez said. "If you like it, it's forever."

Hockey is part of Lopez's soul now. After Vegas scored three times in a span of 1:31 in the first period Thursday, after three soccer-style goal calls that nearly took his breath away, Lopez looked to his left, pumped a fist and smiled. His listeners couldn't see it, but they could hear it in his voice.



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