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Talking hockey in the land of illusions

Las Vegas is on the clock.

With the kickoff of the season ticket drive for what could be a National Hockey League team, sports fans are being whipped into a lather by some sharp marketing. But is this really an NHL market?

In my heart, I want to believe. But my head says no so loudly that I’m trying to peek behind the curtain.

Before we go on, a bit of disclosure: I grew up in hockey country, went to college in Montreal and I’ve been to all the “Original Six” cathedrals of hockey. I’ve also been to games in a handful of warm weather NHL spots. I’ve been to numerous NCAA Frozen Four events.

I’m a hockey fan. And I’d never buy a season ticket from Bill Foley. Much as I like hockey, I’m not committing to 40 nights plus a handful of exhibitions in a cold, dark room. That’s not why I came to Vegas.

So Foley and his partners — the Maloofs, MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group — have no way of measuring my ticket-buying interest or likely that of the vast majority of the area’s legitimate hockey fans who might go for less-than-full-season packages.

But then there’s a real question of whether Foley wants or needs that information.

According to Canada’s National Post, Foley is in possession of studies putting the number of Las Vegas area residents who care about NHL hockey at 120,000. Pollster Nate Silver, the New York Times political pundit-turned-sports guru at FiveThirtyEight.com, puts the number even lower at 91,000. The number in Toronto, for example, is put at 5 million.

Foley is a sharp business executive who’s made a fortune in mortgages. His pencil is sharp. And those numbers don’t pencil.

Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, knows what success looks like. A report in Forbes says three NHL franchises are worth more than a billion dollars each. But he also knows what 8,000 fans in a 20,000-seat arena looks like. He’s got three franchises — Miami, Phoenix and Raleigh, N.C. — that are averaging 30 percent empty seats. He’s told other suitor cities that the NHL isn’t in expansion mode. And then along came Sin City.

Cue the jokes about the only ice here being in drinks. But the city has two things going for it:

1) There’s one really big, really empty $375 million arena going up behind New York-New York. And it’s being privately funded, a rare claim anywhere in pro sports.

2) Money and dreams have a different value here. People with real wealth have a connection to this town and when they think about playing out their fantasies, Las Vegas is in the conversation.

In asking Foley to determine fan interest, the NHL set a low bar. Certainly it would be good to know the level of corporate commitment from the Strip. But Foley can achieve the “right” answer, if he wants. Do the math. For $1.5 million (10,000 down payments of $150 each), Team Foley can demonstrate the level of interest the league wants. For people purportedly poised to drop $450 million in franchise fees, that’s loose change.

If Foley hits the number without his thumb on the scale, that’s great and an encouragement for moving a team here. But what would make a Las Vegas team a success when the team in Phoenix is failing?

The pieces just don’t fit.

There’s no denying AEG/MGM would benefit from having an anchor tenant for its new arena. My heart says bring on the NHL, but my head says this is most likely to end up looking a lot like Phoenix or Miami.

And that makes me wonder if what we have here is a marketing-driven stalking horse.

Could it be the real plan is to create a show of viability that will provide cover for Adam Silver to approve the National Basketball Association franchise AEG/MGM really want?

This is one of those moments when being the kind of city that makes things happen might work for us, albeit in a roundabout way.

Whatever the truth, it will be an interesting few months as all this unfolds. And it’s a lot more fun pondering the possibility of an NHL team than being in, say, Hartford, Conn., where Gordie Howe’s presence is just a distant memory.

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