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Golden Knights owner Foley eager, anxious with season approaching

Proud 'crazy' idea for expansion team has taken shape

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WHITEFISH, Mont. -- One day in August 2013, Bill Foley motored his pontoon boat around Whitefish Lake and found Murray Craven relaxing by his house.

It's common for folks on the lake to go dock to dock and chat with neighbors over a beverage, and Craven had become more than a neighbor over the years. He was a golfing buddy, a friend, a confidant.

"I got to know Murray as a very practical, down-to-earth, street-smart guy," Foley said.

Craven also had played 1,071 games in the NHL, and it just so happened that Foley had come back from meeting with NHL officials about the possibility of putting an expansion team in Las Vegas.

After Craven strolled down the dock and put one foot on Foley's pontoon to keep it in position, they chatted for a while. They talked about playing golf the next day.

"And as I was leaving the dock, I said, 'Well, Murray, what do you think about hockey in Las Vegas? I might be able to do that,' " Foley said. "Or something to that effect."

And what did the very practical, down-to-earth, street-smart guy say?

"He said, 'Crazy. You're crazy,' " Foley said with a smile. "Actually, he said something that was a little more explicit."

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Craven laughed at the memory.

"My words weren't really made for public consumption," Craven said. "It caught me off guard. I just said, 'I think you're out of your mind.' "

Las Vegas had never had a major league sports team before. People thought the city was all about the Strip and worried about gambling. Hockey people in particular thought of the desert and worried about a nontraditional market.

Four years later, Foley is the owner of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Craven is a senior vice president. The Golden Knights are on a promotional tour through Idaho, Montana and Utah, part of their local TV territory, and held a hockey clinic in Whitefish on Wednesday.

The side of the bus advertises the inaugural home opener: "PUCK DROPS OCT. 10."

Crazy, huh?

* * * * *

It's crazy how much has happened in four years, especially the past 14 months.

Market research showed there were 135,000 avid hockey fans among more than 2 million people in the Las Vegas area. Foley led a season-ticket drive to demonstrate the local demand to the Board of Governors, which didn't want an expansion team to rely on casinos and tourists. T-Mobile Arena opened on the Strip.

The NHL awarded Foley the franchise on June 22, 2016.

Business and hockey operations staffs were built. The team was named. The logo and uniform were designed and unveiled. The roster was stocked with Vegas' first players and prospects through the NHL Expansion Draft and 2017 NHL Draft.

City National Arena, a practice facility with two ice sheets in suburban Summerlin, Nevada, is nearing completion. Veterans report to training camp Sept. 14. The Golden Knights open the regular season Oct. 6 at the Dallas Stars.

"You've got to be proud of that," Craven said. "I think we've done a tremendous job putting together a hockey team. We were only awarded the team a little over a year ago. It's not like we've been preparing for this for two or three years."

Video: Nick Cotsonika on the Golden Knights' road trip

Foley is proud, and eager for the season, and a little anxious.

"We have a lot to do, but the groundwork has been laid," Foley said. "We used to say probably nine months, 10 months ago, 'We've got 100 trains that all left the station, and they all have to arrive at a location, and they have to be there on Oct. 10 of '17.' 

"And some trains went 100 miles an hour, and some trains went 2 miles an hour. And so we had to get those trains that were going 2 miles an hour to pick up the pace. And we've done that.

"Now it's a matter of getting organized, and getting all the little pieces put together."

It's hard to anticipate all the little pieces when none were in place before.

"I'm really excited about getting to play," Foley said. "I'm excited about bringing this team to Las Vegas and what we're going to do to entertain our fans. I'm really excited about that.

"I'm still nervous about the business operations side and how cash flow works -- when we get our cash and how we have to pay our cash out -- because no one wants to write another check. We've written our checks, so we don't want to have capital calls."

Foley paid $500 million for the franchise, but that was just the expansion fee. He still had to pay for everything else involved. He just paid $1.4 million for equipment, for instance, from skates to pads to sticks.

"I've probably underestimated the amount of upfront expenses and costs that you have to have in putting a team together," Foley said. "We have a lot of other things going on at T-Mobile that we're spending money on that are expensive. We knew they were there, but when you write the check, holy moly, it's a lot of money."

The Golden Knights have big plans. Each home game, the party will start an hour and a half before faceoff to draw fans early and ease the traffic and parking situation. There will be bands. There will be DJs. There will be ice girls. There will be dancers. There will be an ice show. The players will make a dramatic entrance through …

Well, at least some details about what will happen in Vegas will stay in Vegas for now.

Just know that the Golden Knights get it.

"It's the entertainment capital of the world," Foley said, "and we need to be entertaining."

Video: Murray Craven chats about the Golden Knights

* * * * *

What's most entertaining is winning.

The NHL created an expansion draft that was more advantageous for the Golden Knights than expansion drafts were for teams in the past. General manager George McPhee studied the rules and the League landscape. When the time came, McPhee used the expansion draft to amass as many assets as possible, making trades for players, prospects and picks.

His goal wasn't to be as competitive as possible immediately. It was to put the Golden Knights in the best position to compete for the Stanley Cup in the future.

"I would have probably liked to have had more strength early, but I respected George's plan to build through the draft and to get draft picks," Foley said. "The reality is, we might have gone out in Year One and Two and won 50 percent of our games and just missed the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs or made the playoffs, but we wouldn't have been competitive for the long run. The way George has set it up, we'll be competitive."

Thanks to their maneuvering in the expansion draft, the Golden Knights had 13 picks in the 2017 draft, including three in the top 15 and three in the second round. They turned them into five centers, four wings, two defensemen and two goaltenders with a mix of skill and size.

They had center Cody Glass rated in their top five and got him at No. 6. They had center Nick Suzuki rated in their top 10 and got him at No. 13. They selected defenseman Erik Brannstrom at No. 15, and they think he could be another Ryan Ellis, an impact player the Nashville Predators took at No. 11 in the 2009 NHL Draft.

They had defenseman Nicolas Hague rated as a first-rounder; he fell to them in the second round at No. 34. He is 6-6, 215, makes good reads, has a good stick and patterns himself after 6-6 defensemen Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues.

"We really had four first-round picks when you look at where Nic Hague fell," Foley said. "He easily could have been high 20s in the draft. So we know those guys in four years, five years, they're going to be ready to play. They may not be ready next year or the year after, but they're going to be ready to play, and they're going to get the experience they need.

"We'll do the same thing next year and the year after. George will make some moves next year to make sure we have several first-round picks again. This will just build from there."

McPhee did not need to convince Foley this was the right course. Foley did not alter the destination, either.

"It sort of just fell in place, honestly," Foley said. "It's not like we ever had a discussion about what he's going to do early and what he's going to do as we proceed through the next several years. But he knows my goal is playoffs in three [seasons] and Stanley Cup in six. That's my goal. Hasn't changed.

"And I believe if you set goals and you talk about goals, it becomes embedded in a culture of a group of people, you'll achieve those goals."

You gonna call Bill Foley crazy?

Video: The Vegas Golden Knights kick off their road trip

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