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Golden Knights’ success lifts Las Vegas to another level in sports world

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Florida Panthers at Vegas Golden Knights

Jun 13, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Vegas Golden Knights forward Brett Howden (21) hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Florida Panthers in game five of the 2023 Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS - Massive cheers rather than the usual boos rained down on Gary Bettman on Tuesday night because nothing could keep Vegas Golden Knights fans from enjoying what the NHL commissioner was about to do.

He first presented the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP to Jonathan Marchessault and then moments later handed the Stanley Cup to captain Mark Stone, who shared it with the rest of the team.

“What has happened here has been simply incredible,” Bettman told the crowd. “Not only is Vegas a hockey town, it’s a championship town.”

The modern era for Las Vegas sports began when the NHL awarded the city an expansion franchise in 2016, and the Knights began playing in the 2017-18 season. Owner Bill Foley issued his famous “playoffs in three, cup in six” proclamation and Vegas made the Stanley Cup Final in its first season and won it all this year - its sixth season.

Since the Knights came on board, Las Vegas has acquired an NFL team in the Raiders and the WNBA’s Stars moved from San Antonio and became the Aces. The Aces won the championship last year and this season are again the league’s best team.

“It’s exciting as heck,” Raiders and Aces owner Mark Davis said about the state of Las Vegas sports. “When you watch a great organization win a championship, it’s obviously inspiration. It shows how much hard work and everything that goes into it, but as far as feeding off it, I don’t know that that’s the right term.”

Davis said his late father, Al, saw the potential in Las Vegas many years ago when he used to celebrate his July 4 birthday in the city. The Oakland Raiders defeated the Houston Oilers in an 1964 preseason American Football League game in the first pro football event in Las Vegas.

Al Davis saw “an opportunity here,” his son said.

More sports milestones could be ahead for Vegas.

The Nevada Legislature voted Wednesday to help fund a new Las Vegas stadium for the Oakland Athletics. Next is Gov. Joe Lombardo’s signature, which could come Thursday. Major League Baseball’s owners also must approve the move.

LeBron James has also made noise about wanting to own an NBA franchise in Las Vegas, and Commissioner Adam Silver told “Inside the NBA” last week that expansion will be considered once a media-rights deal is reached. He said talks “will begin in earnest probably next spring.”

“We don’t have anything specific (on expansion) right now, but I think it makes sense over time if you’re a successful organization and continue to grow,” Silver said. “There’s no doubt there are a lot of great cities interested in having the NBA.”

Las Vegas has a long history of being a go-to city for major events, and that’s especially true now.

The Super Bowl will be played at Allegiant Stadium in February, the Final Four will be there in 2028, and Formula One will plant its flag on Las Vegas Boulevard in November.

It’s been an incredible journey for a city that, because of legalized sports betting, was mostly shunned by professional leagues in the past and was ruled out at one time from hosting NCAA championship events. The NFL once even nixed a Super Bowl ad touting Las Vegas tourism.

Now the NFL not only has scheduled its premier event for Las Vegas, the league placed its popular draft in the city last year.

It’s not, however, that Las Vegas was devoid of sports before the Knights came along. Basketball has long maintained a prominent presence because of the famous UNLV teams that became a national brand and won the NCAA Tournament in 1990 to the NBA Summer League becoming the place of business for all 30 clubs to USA Basketball making this its home training site to five conferences staging their basketball tournaments here.

Major boxing and UFC fights, NASCAR and the National Finals Rodeo have long helped define Las Vegas sports, and under the national radar, the Triple-A team has been around 40 years and is among the top draws in minor-league baseball.

But when the Knights came along, that took Las Vegas to another level in how the city viewed itself and the outside world perceived southern Nevada. Las Vegas was truly in the club at that point as home to a team in one of the four major professional sports.

And then the fans packed T-Mobile Arena, the Knights changed how games are presented with elaborate shows before the puck drop and - most importantly - the franchise won right away.

“Best place to play,” Knights forward William Carrier said. “This building is unbelievable and we saw it (Tuesday). We fed on their energy and we got a couple big goals here. You can tell that everyone wants to come play here now.”

Foley said he thought early on that the pieces came together this season to make his dream of “cup in six” come true.

“This was our year to do something special,” he said.

This, indeed, is Las Vegas’ time in the sports world.