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Vegas was hot for hockey years before Golden Knights' run to playoffs

Former minor leaguers recall large, passionate crowds predating NHL in city

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director of Editorial

LAS VEGAS -- There were professional hockey players in the desert before the Vegas Golden Knights turned this city into an NHL oasis with a remarkable first season that will continue in the Western Conference Final.

There was the Las Vegas Thunder, featuring players like Radek Bonk and Curtis Joseph, who each had a long NHL career. But that International Hockey League team, which played at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, folded in 1999 after six seasons.

In 2003, the Las Vegas Wranglers joined the ECHL, the third division of North American pro hockey. The Wranglers, an expansion team like the Golden Knights, quickly became a hit, drawing sellout crowds at Orleans Arena, which was brand new.

Sound familiar?

It is the same plot, with a lot less visibility, that the Golden Knights have followed in one of the greatest sports stories of all time. Vegas will play at the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).

Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, 36, played for the Wranglers during their first two seasons.

"It was a long time ago, I was a first-year pro," said Engelland, who joined the Wranglers after five seasons with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League. "Coming from a small town in Canada, playing in Vegas was kind of surreal at the time. 

"We had a great group of guys, the crowds were always great and there was a lot of energy in the building, a lot like T-Mobile [Arena] is now, but not obviously on that scale. It was a lot of fun. I have a lot of good memories around it."

Many Wranglers players had a lot of fun bringing pro hockey to the desert. Some even stayed when they were done playing; Engelland met his wife, Melissa, in Las Vegas and lives here during the summer.

Mike Madill was a Wranglers defenseman from 2007-13, joining them in his second pro season. He was their coach and general manager in their final season, 2013-14. They disbanded when they couldn't find a new home after losing their lease at Orleans Arena, where, Madill said, the Wranglers frequently had sellout crowds of more than 7,500 for weekend games and frequently drew more than 4,000 fans during the week.

The rousing success of the Golden Knights in their inaugural season has brought memories of the Wranglers back to the forefront for those who created them. 

"Las Vegas and Orleans Arena was the best place to be in the minor leagues," said the 36-year-old Madill, a Nevada-based district manager with Breakthru Beverage, a beer and liquor distributor. "Our fan base was a loyal and supportive group that really got behind the team."

The Golden Knights play in front of enthusiastic, capacity crowds and are setting records for on-ice success. 

Vegas defeated the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks to become one of three teams in NHL history to win two playoff series in an inaugural season (1917-18 Toronto Arenas, 1967-68 St. Louis Blues). In the regular season the Golden Knights obliterated the NHL records for wins (51) and points (109) by a first-year team and won the Pacific Division.

Many people not familiar with the sport's past in this city have been surprised by how quickly the NHL has flowered in the desert. But those who helped blaze the pro hockey trail before the Golden Knights smile knowingly.

Marc Magliarditi finished a 10-season pro career in 2007, spending his final four seasons as a Wranglers goaltender. He stayed in the area after his playing days and went into real estate.

He remembers the good times when he played here, but not even he can fathom how far the Golden Knights have come since October.  

"It's like nothing I ever imagined," said Magliarditi, 46, a vice president with Las Vegas-based Logic CRE. "It's brought a sense of community that hasn't been here since I have been here, since the '90s."

He tells stories about co-workers who had never mentioned hockey before wearing Golden Knights gear to the office and gathering in the corridors to talk about the latest game.

"To be a hockey guy in this town, it's been a lot of fun to watch," he said. "It's total pandemonium here right now."

Despite being born in Kitchener, Ontario, and spending his formative years in Detroit, Jay White is a Las Vegas guy through and through, having lived here for 28 years. He is a professional Neil Diamond impersonator but also a hockey guy; he was an emergency backup goalie for the Thunder and the Wranglers. White wouldn't reveal his age but said he was last an emergency backup with the Wranglers in 2009, when he was 54. 

White also has Golden Knights fever. He said he recently bought a new car solely because it was gray with a gold-and-black interior, the colors of the uniform. He put Vegas headrest covers on the front seats and affixed a Golden Knights-themed vanity license plate to the back.  

White laughed as he told stories of people stopping him to talk hockey, the conversations he has when he plays drop-in hockey in the afternoon, the memories he has of hockey in this city extending much further back than the Golden Knights.

Then he acknowledged the obvious. This is different, bigger, more special.

"I don't know how it can get any more crazy excited than the fans are now," he said, "but it is going to happen in this round." 

The Wranglers lost in the Kelly Cup Finals in 2008 and 2012. Do these former minor leaguers believe the Golden Knights can finish the journey to a championship by winning eight more games?

"Yeah, I believe!" Madill said. "Are you kidding?

"They still have some damage to do in the playoffs. Can they win it all? If the chips fall the right way, for sure."

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