Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Ron Kantowski:

Hockey on a budget

Wranglers open season with the economy a continuing challenge

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STEPHEN R. SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Wranglers goaltender Michael Ouzas stops a close shot by Ontario winger Brian Matte as Las Vegas defensemen Chris Frank and Craig Switzer push Matte from the crease during a preseason game at the Orleans Arena. The Wranglers’ seventh season kicks off tonight.

IF YOU GO

  • What: Las Vegas Wranglers vs. Utah Grizzlies
  • When: 7:05 tonight
  • Where: Orleans Arena
  • Tickets: $12.50-$38; lasvegaswranglers.com

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Beyond the Sun

In a few hours they will drop the puck on their seventh consecutive campaign of slashing, high-sticking and roughing at the Orleans Arena, thereby breaking the defunct Las Vegas Thunder’s record of slashing, high-sticking and roughing longevity in Las Vegas, which stood at six seasons.

I don’t know if this fact constitutes the proudest moment in Las Vegas Wranglers history, because it’s up against the memorable Kelly Cup playoff run of 2007-08 and the just-as-memorable-if-not-more-so Mini Kiss concert of 2005 when Mini Gene Simmons and Mini Paul Stanley and Mini Ace Frehley played so loud after a Wranglers game you could hear them back in Mini Sota.

“Do we get a plaque?” said Billy Johnson, the Wranglers’ president and chief operating officer, on the occasion of the team’s seventh anniversary.

The Wranglers should get a plaque or a gold star or total consciousness on their death bed from “Slapshot’s” Reggie Dunlop for making it this long and this far in a town that is like bad elastic when it comes to supporting pro sports franchises.

It hasn’t been easy to keep the turnstiles turning. Last year, when the economy tanked like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in northern Africa, it was downright difficult. This year, it’s still going to be downright difficult. The economy is bouncing back slowly, but not here, not yet, says Johnson, a true desert fox when it comes to the promotional side of operating a minor-league hockey franchise. Or need I remind you of Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night?

The Wranglers are doing a rope-a-dope when it comes to the economy, Johnson said. Like Ali against Foreman, they are on the ropes, covering up for their financial life.

“Hopefully, it’ll punch itself out,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can and try not to spend too much money.”

Johnson, who usually leaves the slashing and other unsavory tactics indigenous to minor-league hockey to the team’s checking line, has had to do some slashing himself. He has slashed the team’s media relations position, slashed a lot of the budget for live promotions (goodbye Mini Kiss and full-sized Billy Idol impersonators), slashed luxury items such as fancy season tickets for those who could scrape together the cash to renew them.

If Slash, the guitar player of some repute for Guns N’ Roses, moonlighted as a left wing, Johnson might have to slash Slash in an effort to return to the halcyon days where the team only lost an acceptable sum of money, instead of an egregious sum.

The Wranglers have never turned a profit.

That’s not unusual at the minor league level, Johnson said. But with season ticket renewals down 20 percent, team principals are probably closer to taking a financial bath than the financial shower to which they are accustomed.

Attendance has steadily declined at Wranglers games, from an average of 5,075 in 2006-07 to 4,970 in 2007-08 to 4,621 last season. Attendance at last year’s playoffs was abysmal, as the Wranglers averaged only 3,470 paying customers, which would make any COO snarl like Billy Idol. Or at least a Billy Idol impersonator.

Things are tough all over in the ECHL. In 2003, the league sported 31 teams. This season, it begins with 20. Last year, the ECHL lost four teams, including two that folded in the middle of the season. Even if one of them was Fresno, that’s never good.

Johnson calls the flagging economy a “big, heavy warship” but he vows to man the lifeboats to keep the Wranglers afloat. He said the organization has always prided itself in making a professional presentation and he’s confident it will continue to do so, despite all that slashing behind the scenes. He says the business model the franchise has adopted out of necessity makes financial sense.

Now, it’s a matter of it also making financial dollars if the Wranglers are to make it to an eighth season and beyond.

“It’s like my Facebook page says — wear bright colors but stay low,” said Johnson, who is nothing if not committed to providing family entertainment, or at least slashing, high-sticking and roughing, at an affordable price.

Did he say stay low?

Until the economy digs itself out of this corner, Johnson says he is prepared to chiefly operate the Wranglers on Mini Peter Criss’ level, if that’s what it takes.

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