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September 1, 2014

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Las Vegas Wranglers:

Tired of the NHL lockout, Las Vegas got its own snowy New Year’s hockey game

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Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun

Fans react as “snow” begins to fall on their section of the Orleans Arena during the first Indoor Winter Classic game as Las Vegas hosted the Ontario Reign on Tuesday afternoon.

Indoor Winter Classic

Fans react as Launch slideshow »

Two weeks ago, Las Vegas Wranglers President Billy Johnson held a staff meeting to figure out how to promote its New Year's Day hockey game.

With all the college football bowl games and New Year's festivities, Johnson knew the Wranglers' matchup against the Ontario Reign would be a tough sell.

"(New Year's Day) is a date you try to avoid," Johnson said. "But because of scheduling, we got stuck with it."

But Johnson was undeterred. After all, he's the mastermind behind wacky Wranglers promotions such as the Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night and and the Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform night.

Enter the world's inaugural "Indoor Winter Classic," a spoof on the National Hockey League's annual Winter Classic.

The sixth Winter Classic was supposed to be played Tuesday, but the match was nixed thanks to the ongoing NHL lockout. So Johnson decided the Wranglers were going to hold its own version of the New Year's Day tradition.

However, there was a slight problem. The Winter Classic is always played outdoors. The Orleans Arena — where the Wranglers play — is indoors.

No matter. Johnson had four snow-making machines installed on the arena ceiling, and ensured that arena doors would be thrown open several times during the game to mimic unpredictable snow and wind patterns. He even brought in Las Vegas weathercaster Nathan Tannenbaum to deliver weather forecasts during the game.

"So many people were taking pictures of the snow," Johnson said as he watched the game from the stands. "I got a kick out of that."

"It was a great idea," said John Wrote, 40, a Wranglers season ticket holder. "Even the wind noises (over the loudspeakers) made me laugh. It was fun."

Even the Reign fans found the gimmick entertaining.

"It was amusing and cute," said San Bernardino, Calif., resident Gary Faulk, 62, who drove three hours to catch Tuesday's game. "They should have had more snow machines."

Although the "Indoor Winter Classic" was a light-hearted and fun event, there was an undercurrent of resentment against the labor dispute holding the NHL season hostage. Several announcements bemoaned the lockout and NV Energy agreed to kick in $1 for every game cancelled because of it (So far, it's 625 games and counting).

"People are not happy about this lockout," Johnson said. "(Hockey players and concession workers) are not working because of this. It's just insane."

Although the lockout could help boost attendance for minor league hockey teams like the Wranglers, it's really the unique promotions that keep loyal fans coming, Johnson said.

Special events such as the "Indoor Winter Classic" and midnight games could help sell hundreds of additional tickets. Music concerts and a free-skate session on the rink after games also could drive ticket sales, Johnson said.

"For us to survive in this market, we've got to try," he said. "If we stop trying, we won't make it."

Wranglers fans seem to agree.

"(Las Vegas) is a tough city for sports," said Kevin Nettesheim, 44. "But this is the best entertainment value in town. Every Wranglers' game deserves to be a sellout. They're getting there."

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