PLYMOUTH, Minn. — Strip away the atmosphere of playing in front of 20,000 spectators — and size, in most cases — and the players lining the bench wearing Golden Knights jerseys bear a striking resemblance to their NHL counterparts from Las Vegas.
These Golden Knights are playing in hockey-mad Minnesota in a national tournament, but hail from their own hockey-crazed hometown. The creation of the Vegas Golden Knights at the NHL level has captivated a city not known for working with ice.
Wearing the same uniforms as their NHL equivalents, the Vegas Junior Golden Knights are spreading the word of hockey in the desert.
“There’s a lot more hockey in Vegas than you’d expect,” forward Patrick Voors said, donning a No. 18 sweater just like NHL star James Neal.
Whether it’s NHL forward David Perron’s No. 57 worn by Nolan Mensch or the No. 19 of Reilly Smith shared proudly by Jr. Golden Knights forward Daniel Ramos, the group of high schoolers is part of the growing presence of hockey in Las Vegas.
Once known as the Nevada Storm, the team adopted the Golden Knights moniker this year in coordination with Las Vegas NHL team which took the ice for the first time this season. The Junior Golden Knights carried the momentum all the way to the Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Nationals in Plymouth, Minnesota, this weekend.
“There’s a whole entire different hockey world that people in Vegas don’t even know of,” Ramos said. “When they see it, it’s a whole different view that they have on hockey. They think of just the Golden Knights, there’s no minor team, and then you have Golden Knights exposing that we have younger, youth programs for kids to try out. They’ve been helping that a lot, so it helps grow.”
In a partnership with the NHL club, including longtime NHL veteran Murray Craven, the hockey association in Nevada is developing at an accelerated rate. The high school players, who play their regular season as part of a circuit of California teams including another NHL-sponsored team from Anaheim, are proud to wear the Golden Knights jersey and represent their city.
Ramos’ original inspiration for wearing No. 19 came from former Arizona Coyotes forward Shane Doan, but has grown to match Smith for Las Vegas.
“He had 19 and he got an ‘A’ too,” Ramos said of Smith. “I was given the ‘A’ and I saw him, he plays very well. He plays like I do as well.”
Ramos added: “Vegas now has a professional hockey team and this is what represents them, and we get to wear it.”
The Junior Golden Knights opened the tournament Thursday with a 5-2 loss to Greenville, South Carolina, in which Las Vegas got goals from Brett Harpling and Caleb Day. Goaltender Jacob Paul — wearing No. 29 just like Marc-Andre Fleury — made 30 saves.
The players said “it was a stretch” to previously believe they would play on a national stage like they are in Minnesota.
The Junior Golden Knights feature a roster of 23 players, purely from Las Vegas.
“It’s become huge,” Voors said of hockey in Las Vegas.
A few years ago, there were two hockey associations in Las Vegas, basically in a competition for the top talent in an area that wasn’t breeding many players. Finally, the groups joined forces under the Nevada Storm nickname.
But the programs were still fledgling.
Coach Jeffery Bruckner of the Junior Golden Knights said there would be 60 kids in the association. There were three ice sheets in town. Now, with Las Vegas’ NHL team developing the market, there are five ice sheets and excited kids ready to lace on skates.
“They have over 500 kids in there learning to play, in that development program,” Bruckner said of the new City National Arena. “Just since September or October, you go to the rink now and it’s people coming in and out, little kids, it’s just wonderful. The future’s going to be great.”
Hockey in Las Vegas has also thrived with the help of the Zuckers. Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild started the sport while living in Vegas and returns for an annual camp. His father, Scott, is president of the state’s amateur hockey association. Jason’s brothers, Evan and Adam, are coaches in the Las Vegas program.
The focus is on developing skills, utilizing USA Hockey’s American Development Model, and growing the numbers at the youth levels. Hockey in Las Vegas is real, growing and demonstrating itself on a national level
While hockey was around long before the NHL came to town, the relationship with the Golden Knights has been a boon for all involved.
“It’s been great,’ Bruckner said. “They’re supportive. They keep an eye on us. They definitely stress skills, skills, skills. Developing skills is just critical.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.