Las Vegas Sun

August 19, 2014

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Thomas & Mack Turns 25:

No. 9: Thunder shakes the Mack

Minor league hockey franchise upstages UNLV in its own building

Click to enlarge photo

A display highlighting the various minor league hockey teams that have played inside the Thomas & Mack, hangs on a wall in the arena's concourse.

Special section

Editor's Note: In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Thomas & Mack Center's opening on Nov. 21, 1983, the Sun is celebrating the building's colorful history with a top 25 countdown - to No. 1 on Nov. 21, 2008 - of the biggest events held inside the arena located on UNLV's campus.

It's hard to believe the UNLV basketball team once was upstaged by a minor league hockey franchise in it's own building, but it's true.

It was the 1993-94 season. The Rebel basketball team finished 15-13 under controversial coach Rollie Massimino in what would be his last year on the job.

The Thomas & Mack Center was ready for a change — both literally and physically.

The basketball arena was retrofit for ice hockey. Faster than you can say "Zamboni," the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League became the Thomas & Mack Center's chief tenant — both in the number of dates it occupied and the amount of interest it generated.

Buoyed by crowd favorites such as 17-year-old Radek Bonk of the Czech Republic, former NHL goaltender Clint Malarchuk and mighty-mite Patrice Lefebvre, the Thunder quickly became the hottest ticket in town.

Even Gretzky played here — although it was Brent, Wayne's kid brother.

The Las Vegas team finished 52-18-11 in its debut season. Although it never won a championship and the novelty of playing hockey in the desert eventually subsided, the franchise proved during its six-year existence there was a healthy appetite for shots on goal and fierce body checks in Las Vegas.

Four years after the IHL and the Thunder capitulated, hockey returned to Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Wranglers, absorbing much of the fan base created by the Thunder, have been a consistent draw in the ECHL and recently dropped the puck on their sixth season at the Orleans Arena across town.

There has been rampant speculation that if Las Vegas builds a new state-of-the-art sports arena, its first major tenant will be a hockey team.

If that comes to pass, the Thunder's legacy will only grow.

Over the years, the Thomas & Mack Center has been home to myriad minor league sports franchises, ranging from basketball to arena football to roller hockey.

None made it rock like the 1993-94 Las Vegas Thunder.

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