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Kings ready to pass hockey torch to Las Vegas

Preseason games this weekend are last in city before expansion team begins play in 2017

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

LAS VEGAS -- When the Los Angeles Kings came to Las Vegas for preseason games in the past, it felt like a novelty act.

They would come down from their rooms in the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, walk past the table games and slot machines, and wade through crowds of fans held back by security. They would play in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which was built more for boxing and shows than for hockey.

But when the Kings came to Las Vegas to play preseason games against the Dallas Stars on Friday and the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, it felt, well, routine.

They arrived for the morning skate Friday at T-Mobile Arena, a 17,500-seat, $375 million facility that opened in April and will be the home of the Las Vegas expansion franchise that begins play next season. The ice was good. The lights were bright. The atmosphere was quiet and businesslike.

"I mean, it's kind of like any other new rink," Kings captain Anze Kopitar said.

That's a compliment. That means Las Vegas feels legit.

"It's a beautiful rink," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "Looking forward to them having a team here."

The NHL's roots in Las Vegas date to Sept. 27, 1991, when the Kings played a preseason game against New York Rangers -- outdoors. Yes, outdoors. Long before the League made outdoor hockey an event in cities across North America, a temporary rink was built in the parking lot outside Caesars Palace, and 13,007 people watched Wayne Gretzky skate under the lights in 85- to 95-degree temperatures.

The Kings have returned to Las Vegas for preseason games indoors at the MGM Grand Garden Arena almost every year since 1997 in what has been known as the Frozen Fury, usually facing the Avalanche. They have their logo painted at center ice at T-Mobile Arena for these two games. They are still the home team, and fans are walking along The Strip in Kings gear.

But in a pregame ceremony Saturday, the Kings will pass the torch for the Frozen Fury to Bill Foley, the owner of the new Las Vegas franchise. In a year, it will be Foley's team that will be playing preseason games at T-Mobile Arena to prepare for its inaugural NHL season. It will be here before we know it.

This already has been a big week for the new franchise. On Monday, it hired a president, Kerry Bubolz, who came from the Cleveland Cavaliers but has a hockey background that includes stints with the Carolina Hurricanes and Stars. On Wednesday, it broke ground on its $24 million, 120,000-square-foot practice facility in Summerlin, Nevada, about 25 minutes from T-Mobile Arena.

General manager George McPhee said the practice facility would be "the best in the business," and Foley said it would be completed in time for the team's first training camp next September.

"It better be ready," Foley told reporters. "I'm going to be on everybody's case to get it done."

In public, the Las Vegas franchise is trying to create a buzz, hosting fan fests before the two preseason games at the Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena. On Friday, there will be music and beverage trucks. On Saturday, there will be music, beverage trucks, street hockey and autographs from former NHL players. Foley and McPhee will answer questions from fans. (They won't say what the team will be named, though. Foley has said it will be Desert Knights, Silver Knights or Golden Knights; an announcement likely will be made in November.)

In private, the Las Vegas franchise is trying to build a team. McPhee has been hiring assistants and scouts, and will assemble them at the team's temporary offices Saturday and Sunday for their first mock expansion draft. They will spend the season watching the current 30 NHL teams, knowing they will have to submit their list of selections June 20.

Los Angeles and Las Vegas soon will be in the same division. The Kings and (Desert, Silver or Golden) Knights could become rivals.

"I'm sure once the team is settled in here, they're going to have to find some rival," Kopitar said. "It'll be interesting to see who they get. I think you've got to go through some playoff battles with a team to build that up. We'll see when that happens."

Imagine how different it will feel on The Strip the day of a game.

"I know that every road team that rolls in, their fans are going to be following them," Doughty said. "What better place to follow them than to Vegas? And then obviously the home fans, they don't have a pro sports team here, so I don't see how it couldn't succeed."

Then again, imagine how unremarkable it will feel eventually.

"I think it'll be just like any other city, quite honestly," Kings forward Dustin Brown said.

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