Vegas Golden Knights growing the game beyond T-Mobile Arena

As dominant as the guys in gold have been inside the walls of The Fortress, they've been equally impressive growing the game outside of it.
Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 4:34 PM PST
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LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- Since their inception, the Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the premier franchises in the NHL, owning the third-most regular season wins with 202 and ranking in the top-five for attendance every year.

However, as dominant as the guys in gold have been inside the walls of The Fortress, they’ve been equally impressive growing the game outside of it.

“That excitement from T-Mobile [Arena] carries here, carries down to Henderson. The excitement I think people take, that vibe and passion for the Golden Knights games, it’s electric, and they want to be involved,” said Sheri Hudspeth. “If you have kids, you take them to the game, you can bring them here and have that same experience through the youth hockey.”

Hudspeth is a former division one women’s hockey player with more than 30 years of coaching experience under her skates. She was hired by the team last spring and runs the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights girls’ program, something that didn’t exist three years ago.

“It’s refreshing to not be put in a box and it is a blank canvas and do stuff they I want to do it,” said Hudspeth. “The way I know how to do it as a woman and a female, I know what these little girls need because I was that little girl.”

“My girls started out in hockey,” said Melinda Aiken, a mom with two kids in the Golden Knights girls’ program. “They played with boys, they decided they wanted to go figure skate, so both of them were figure skaters and then they came back to hockey two years ago when they started the girls’ program here. So, it was really important for them to play for girls’ teams, and it formed more of a bond for the team I think being an all girls team. So not only seeing hockey grow in Vegas, but girls’ hockey was really important for my kids.”

When you talk about growing the game on and off the ice, the proof is in the pudding for the Golden Knights. FOX5 compared the state of Nevada with the state of Arizona, two warm-weather markets with NHL teams.

The Coyotes arrived on the scene in the 1996, and ten years after their first game in the desert, they had a little more than 7,700 players enrolled in hockey. Since then, Arizona has seen about a 4% decline in player participation.

Comparing that to the Silver State, prior to the Golden Knights inaugural season, there were just shy of 1,400 hockey players. Fast forward to the end of 2021, and Nevada has more than 3,700 enrolled, which equals a 171% growth. When you break down the numbers even further, in that same time, the U8 player category jumped 668% while the girls and women’s group grew 327%.

“They’re off the charts,” said VGK Senior VP of Hockey Programming and Facility Operations Daren Elliot. “Coming through the pandemic, the only area in the country that grew eight and under hockey was Nevada.”

“If you’re just an entertainment option on the menu, you can be successful when you’re successful on the ice. If you don’t have the infrastructure, the grass roots element, the commitment, to facilities and infrastructure, it’s a lot harder to make it. I was part of the Atlanta Thrashers organization. I saw what can happen and what needs to happen, and if it doesn’t happen what the result can be and it’s usually not very successful.”

“There are places in Florida, like the Panthers are having a great season, but guess what they didn’t do the commitment in the 90′s to youth hockey, a commitment to winning, so you have a fan base that has holes in it and gaps in it. Here they’re doing it the right way.”

The Golden Knights have proved when you do it the right way, the results will follow, and that’s not just for the guys in the NHL, but the aspiring pros as well. Hudspeth helped lead her team to two U12 championships, one in Texas, the other in Anaheim.

“What I’m most proud of too is being competitive against organizations that have been around for 25 years,” said Hudspeth. “We go play these girls organizations, they have millions of kids in California, we beat them. We’re going out there and people are seeing us in the streets and taken aback. If they’re not taking us seriously, we’re going home with the banner and the trophy. Very proud of stuff like that, we built a positive culture and I think that’s gone a long way.”

The Golden Knights have rewritten the record books plenty in their short history, but maybe the proudest moment for the state came on Feb. 22, 2020, when Gage Quinney became the first ever Nevada-born player in the NHL.

“It just brings excitement, the sport you’ve been playing since you were younger, and everybody would kind of look at you with three heads when you would tell them what you play. Now everyone is into hockey here,” said Quinney. “We’re the highest state growing for hockey. I think that hits home because I was that kid, younger me was telling everybody to play hockey and they were looking at me like I was crazy. Now I feel like if you don’t like hockey people look at you, you’re crazy. It’s just awesome to see.”

“I genuinely believe in the future this will be a hockey hotbed for kids to develop and eventually go to college, pro and make it from here,” said Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty. “Obviously, there is a couple, Gage Quinney being one and I kind of lean on his dad for advice on that. He went through it, and he said it’s going to be a lot of time and travel, but he had fun doing it with his son Gage and he’s a great player and great kid and no surprise he made it.”

Gage’s dad, Ken, was a former NHLer who played in Las Vegas for the Thunder from 1993 to 1998.

“I just believed in being a hockey player and it happened,” said Quinney. “I have my parents to thank to keep me in that direction and here I am, still playing today and hockey is growing in Vegas.”

While finding home grown talent at the next level is nice, successfully growing the game doesn’t just mean playing at the pro level.

“You hope what you do is make a fan for life, a love of the game, that’s what youth hockey is all about,” said Eliot. “Did you get to play hockey, did you love it while you were a kid growing up, watching the Vegas Golden Knights and oh yeah, I was a hockey player too. That’s the importance.”