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Conference Final

Golden Knights playoff show means 'it's not just a hockey game'

Vegas goes all-in by featuring duel, drum line

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / NHL.com Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- The hottest show on the Las Vegas Strip these days doesn't involve showgirls, magicians, Elvis impersonators or anyone named Donny or Marie, but rather a sword-waving knight and a glowing drum line in front of a castle.

It's richly over the top, an uber-Vegas ceremony before each Vegas Golden Knights home game. Envision two worlds colliding: Medieval Times/"Game of Thrones" meets the NHL.

This is not your father's pregame show.

 

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There is a Golden Knight character, complete with heavy armor and a sword, and a woebegone foe representing the visiting team, helplessly dueling with him while drummers and music pound so loudly it makes T-Mobile Arena feel like a small earthquake is hitting.

"This is an entertainment city," forward James Neal said. "Trying to put on the best show in town."

They will put it on again when the Golden Knights host the Winnipeg Jets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1. 

The pregame show, which has some new wrinkles for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is the brainchild of Jonny Greco, whose vision and unbridled enthusiasm have added to the frenzy the Golden Knights have created in their inaugural season.

Greco, Vegas' vice president, entertainment production, combines high energy and an appreciation for marketing and storytelling, finely crafted during his five years at World Wrestling Entertainment before he joined Vegas.

"Nothing was out of the picture," Greco, 39, said of working with the Golden Knights. "You play the [San Jose] Sharks, it's like, 'Well, what can we do with Sharks at (nearby casino) Mandalay Bay?'

"We're trying to think of everything and some of the ideas are just completely ridiculous. What if we delivered a golden puck with our mascot jumping from a Nellis Air Force (Base) airplane and he skydives into the …"

OK, there is always next season.

"In this city, only half of the time is it so crazy you can't do it," Greco said. "That's the best part, you know? I would say every single time we've gone bigger and then we pull back, we're like, 'OK, this is probably where we're going to land.'"

As defenseman Luca Sbisa said, "It's hard to outdo us."

The locals get it and understand the demands of operating a hockey team in the entertainment capital of the world.

"Vegas is trying to entertain people," said Ric Reeser, a season ticket holder who lives in Henderson, Nevada. "It's not just a hockey game and I think that's wonderful. The drums coming down, and the flags, just like Richard the Lionheart. There's some stodgy teams that would probably never do it, but I think some of the younger teams might take that into account."

Golden Knights executives will tell you so much is about the story; in this case, the story unfolding before the sporting event. And WWE taught Greco very well.

Creating a good-against-evil narrative in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings was almost too easy for Greco and his team; knights and kings at least have a basis in history. The time-honored ability to suspend disbelief in Las Vegas was tested in the second round against the Sharks, though, but the show was so fun and lively that no one really minded.

"In this chapter, your Golden Knights face a new foe," a voice said dramatically to begin the show before Games 1 and 2 of the second round. "A creature from the depths of San Jose."

Thus another doomed opponent was introduced, representing the Sharks, to take on the fully armored Golden Knight in a brief sword fight.

Like the house in Las Vegas, the Golden Knight always wins.

"His sword is, like, solid," Sbisa said. "He could legit go on a horse or [have] a fight, and win."

The man playing the Golden Knight could have come from central casting. Lee Orchard, who grew up in Peterborough, England, is blessed with the look and the accent. Better yet, Orchard has played hockey since he was a kid, and does so recreationally in Las Vegas about four times per week.

"This is the most fun I think I've ever had in my life," said the 43-year-old Orchard, a DJ, emcee and presenter based in the city. "It's really kind of evolved into something I never expected it to be. I'm not talking about Vegas, the team, I'm talking about this role.

"At the very beginning of the season, it was meant to be a staunch ceremonial activity and then it evolved into this hype-man role."

For the record, Orchard is a stay-at-home defenseman. He was a show director for the Medieval Times dinner theaters in Europe, and working at venues in places like Spain helped prepare him for this role of a lifetime.

"With multilingual crowds, it was more animation, you couldn't do a lot of speaking parts," Orchard said. "I've used that here as well."

Before Game 5 against San Jose on May 4, Orchard was in one of the back rooms at T-Mobile Arena prior to showtime. Zack Frongillo, who would play his hapless foe, walked in and they started talking about the future. Vegas was awaiting its opponent in the conference final, either the Nashville Predators or the Jets.

Video: LAK@VGK, Gm1: Golden Knights open playoffs in style

"We're both just sitting there … 'OK, if we get through to the next round, what's next?'" Orchard said.

Knights fighting Predators might have been workable. But there weren't a lot of Jets flying over England in medieval times.

Again, it doesn't seem to matter.

Frongillo shrugged, saying, "Knights and sharks really don't battle."

Surely, Greco will come up with something. He always does.

"It's the good guy vs. the bad guy," Greco said. "The meaner the bad guy, the more heroic the good guy is. It was all about the contrast and it's the tale as old as time.

"It's the happy music against the mean, ominous music. It was all about story. If you could get people to care about the story, they'll be in for anything."

Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz said, "We don't take ourselves too seriously. In a way, the pregame is like WWE, right? There's bad guys. It's San Jose, and there's good guys, it's us and the knight and bringing all that together in a ministory, and then being able to get ready to introduce our players."

Greco was the director of video production for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers from 2004-11. He worked there with Bubolz, who was hired as Golden Knights president Oct. 3, 2016.

Before joining Vegas in April 2017, Greco interviewed with owner Bill Foley. Bubolz laid some groundwork beforehand.

"I had to prep Mr. Foley for the interview because I've known Jonny a long time," Bubolz said. "I said, 'Just understand, he's going to blow your hair back a little bit.' But it's the passion and the energy that you can't teach. It exudes from him, so I had to prep him in advance, and it went great. It's just been awesome."

When the Golden Knights unveiled their logo in June 2016, Foley said, "The Knight protects the unprotected. The Knight defends the realm. The Knight never gives up, never gives in, always advances, never retreats, and that's what our team's going to be."

Bubolz said the pregame show reflects Foley's passion for the medieval knight, and that the vision of the owner and Greco has come to life.

That was evident when they made plans for the playoff entertainment. Bubolz said Greco had a piece of posterboard with little yellow sticky notes all over it, mapping out the show.

"He had walked me through this video, that video, the sequence on the ice," Bubolz said. "There was no imagery at all. It was yellow stickies. His creative enthusiasm to articulate and explain it where you see it, that's a unique skill that he has.

"I was like, 'That's it.'

"Before the first playoff game against L.A., I bet they spent three days, again, again, over and over and over and over, just rehearsing the timing and the sequencing and everything that they did. And then, they just added to the story in round two, the plotline."

Another eye-catching element was added for the playoffs: a 20-foot-tall Golden Knights helmet that is being lowered from the rafters to the ice. The players, led by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and then Neal, skate through it onto the ice.

"I think it's cool," said defenseman Colin Miller, who likened it to the giant Sharks head similarly used in San Jose. "We didn't really know it was going to be there until right before we were skating out there for Game 1 of the playoffs."

There is one other thing.

"Just got to make sure you're not hitting the V [with your] head and knocking yourself out," Miller said.

***

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