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Preseason game shows off what Las Vegas can be

T-Mobile Arena welcomes NHL hockey when Stars defeat Kings

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- It's Friday night in Las Vegas, 82 degrees, gorgeous. People stroll up and down The Strip, headed to bars and restaurants, shops and shows, resorts and casinos.

But turn off of Las Vegas Boulevard and walk into The Park, a tree-lined dining and entertainment district between the Monte Carlo and New York New York, and there's more than gaming.

There's the game.

There's the first hockey game at T-Mobile Arena, the new 17,500-seat, $375 million facility that will be the home of the Las Vegas expansion team starting next NHL season.

Suddenly you see fans in hockey sweaters, and not just of the teams playing in the preseason game that night: the Los Angeles Kings and the Dallas Stars. You see fans representing all kinds of NHL teams, plus teams like the Kelowna Rockets and San Diego Gulls.

You see them eating and drinking outside, playing table tennis and cornhole. You see them milling about Toshiba Plaza, listening to music, lined up to get into the arena. You hear the Dallas folks chanting, "Let's go Stars!"

And before the puck even drops on the Stars' 6-3 victory, you think: This is what it could be like.

"It's good for the city," said Sam Palumbo, 33. "I can't wait. It's good to have hockey here finally. It's nice to have something for the family."

This is what Las Vegas owner Bill Foley envisions.

When the NHL announced June 22 it was awarding Las Vegas its first major-league sports franchise, Foley said he wanted to build a first-class organization and winning team to give the city an identity beyond The Strip.

This is a metropolitan area home to more than 2 million people: retirees, workers, parents, kids. Market research showed it had 130,000 potential ticket-buyers: 75,000 avid hockey fans and 55,000 others interested in seeing a game.

Palumbo is originally from Rochester, New York. He is a Buffalo Sabres fan and wore an old Pat LaFontaine sweater. Months ago, he put down a deposit for two seats for a quarter of a season, helping the team sell out its 16,000 season tickets.

He has a 2-year-old son, Cash. He wants to bring him to hockey games as he grows up.

"It's just good to have something to do other than the Las Vegas Strip," Palumbo said. "Everyone thinks gambling, gambling. This is good entertainment for everybody. …

"Now that I've seen the stadium live … you can see it's going to be perfect."

Once you're inside T-Mobile Arena, you aren't in Las Vegas anymore. You're in the NHL. You can see The Strip outside the huge glass windows on the concourse, and you can see it on a panoramic banner hanging high across one end of the rink. But otherwise, you could be in Los Angeles or Pittsburgh or Ottawa.

Some players said T-Mobile Arena reminded them of Staples Center or PPG Paints Arena. The seats are charcoal gray. The sight lines are good. There are suites and clubs and bars, and a big, high-definition screen hangs over the ice. The pregame show featured Frank Sinatra: "This town is a make-you town. Or a break-you town and bring-you-down town."

"It's going to take a little bit of getting used to, being in Las Vegas for hockey," Stars center Jason Spezza said. "But I thought they did a good job. For a first run, I think it was pretty good. It's definitely suited for hockey. It doesn't look like there's too much extra stuff going on. The fans are in good spots. The lighting's really good. I like the bright lights."

Not everyone loved it. Jim Burr, 62, came from Thousand Oaks, California, just to see the place. He said he went to the Kings' first game at Long Beach Arena in 1967, before The Forum was finished, and he thought, this being Las Vegas, that T-Mobile Arena would be even glitzier or more glamourous.

Not every seat was full. Not every wrinkle was ironed out. But Burr said he thinks the NHL will work in Las Vegas.

"There's a lot of people from other places who live here and are visiting here," said Burr, wearing a Phoenix Roadrunners sweater. "People like us will come to the games. I think you really need season-ticket holders in Vegas, but I think they can do it."

The attendance was 15,181, pretty darn good for a preseason game in most NHL markets, and the atmosphere was better than a typical preseason game. Every goal, there was a roar. You can tell this place has the potential to be loud.

"I thought it was great," Spezza said. "The fans were into it. It was nice to see a bunch of Dallas people here."

And this was just the start.

"We're ready for that team," said Rick Arpin, senior vice president of entertainment for MGM Resorts. "We're mentally ready. We're not really ready yet. We've all got a lot of work to do in the next 12 months. But the passion is there."

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