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Golden Knights 'want arena full of our jerseys, not somebody else's'

Bus tour aiming to create fans of expansion team in Montana, across region

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

WHITEFISH, Mont. -- The boy walked up to the player in the lobby of the Stumptown Ice Den.

"Jake Bischoff, right?" the boy said.

"Yeah," the player said. "Nice to meet you."

We might be in northwestern Montana, in a logging-turned-resort town more than 1,000 miles from Las Vegas, but Bradford Thompson knows his hockey and his Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL expansion team about to open its inaugural season. So does his buddy Birney Grantz.

 

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And they'll know them even better after a hockey clinic Wednesday as part of the Vegas Golden Knights Road Trip.

The 12-year-old boys live a three-minute walk from this rink. They have met NHL players before. Hockey Hall of Fame member Lanny McDonald, who has had a place in Whitefish for more than 40 years and has a couple of hockey-playing grandsons here now, has coached Thompson and Grantz. Former NHL players like Murray Craven and Geoff Sanderson have places here too.

But taking the ice with Bischoff, a 23-year-old defenseman, and Alex Tuch, a 21-year-old forward? Doing drills with them? Learning from them? Talking to them?

"It's pretty cool," Grantz said. "In Montana especially."

It's what it's all about -- this trip in the little picture, the Golden Knights in the big picture.

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who has a ranch on Whitefish Lake, wants his team not only to give Las Vegas an identity beyond The Strip, but to become the team of the Rockies. At least the western Rockies.

The Colorado Avalanche?

"They're on the east side," Foley said with a laugh.

Watch: Youtube Video

The Golden Knights' TV territory on AT&T SportsNet includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and parts of California and Arizona. They won't be able to reach out to those places during the season, so they're reaching out to them now with a bus tour and special events, connecting with fans and creating them.

"I wanted to have us be the focal point, because the people in Montana and Idaho, they don't have a professional sports team to root for," Foley said. "I want to bring us to the Rockies, and if I can accomplish that mission, then we'll have so many people flying to [Las Vegas] that are Golden Knights fans trying to get tickets.

"They'll go to our games wearing our jerseys, not wearing [an Anaheim] Ducks or a [San Jose] Sharks or a [Chicago] Blackhawks jersey. I want the arena full of our jerseys, not somebody else's."

Is that realistic? Would people from Montana root for a team from Nevada? Would a place like Whitefish, a small town with a quaint main street surrounded by green trees, relate to a place like Las Vegas, a big city with bright lights surrounded by desert?

"Absolutely," McDonald said. "I was just talking with a couple of the guys out front. Every team here in Whitefish and Kalispell and all across Montana should be the 'Golden Knights.'"

An event like this can have an impact, especially on kids.

Video: The Vegas Golden Knights kick off their road trip

"I remember being the same age, and I remember how much I looked up to NHLers -- even the high school team in our town," said Bischoff, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, looking up to future NHL defenseman Alex Goligoski. "I thought they were probably the coolest guys ever.

"I definitely feel lucky to be in the position I'm at and try to do whatever I can whenever I can to sort of give back to little communities like this who probably don't get something like this very often. It's definitely cool to be in the position to be able to do that and have some little kid look up to you."

Bischoff and Tuch skated with kids during the clinic along with Craven, Golden Knights senior vice president. At one point, the kids were called to center ice, and Foley was introduced.

"That man right there is responsible for bringing the NHL to the Rockies!" the emcee shouted into the microphone. "The owner of the Vegas Golden Knights!"

The kids tapped their sticks on the ice, then raised them and smacked them in unison in salute. They posed for a picture as if they were all part of a Stanley Cup championship team. Foley stood in the back row with a huge smile.

Bischoff and Tuch signed autographs afterward.

Which NHL team is the kids' favorite?

"I would probably go for the Washington Capitals before this, but I would say probably now the Golden Knights," Thompson said.

Grantz said the Blackhawks. Probably. Maybe.

"I'm kinda starting to change my mind," he said.

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