Just before the most improbable of Stanley Cup Final in the most improbable hockey city around, Gary Bettman and Bill Daly put on a little show of their own.
As lounge acts go, it probably wouldn’t play on the Las Vegas Strip. Then again, no one ever thought the Vegas Golden Knights would be playing on the Las Vegas Strip — and certainly not as late as Memorial Day.
But play they did, in a wild 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals that officially ended with Elvis singing “Viva Las Vegas” and the Golden Knights taking a 1-0 lead in the series.
The greatest expansion team ever against a classic underachiever was already a story that has played well even among those who wouldn’t think of watching anything but playoff basketball this time of the year.
But a thrilling Game 1 couldn’t have been scripted any better even if Bettman and Daly had spent their pre-game writing it instead of sitting in front of the media, sharing laughs and a few inside jokes. They completed each other’s sentences, and seemed to be having so much fun that they didn’t want to leave.
And why not? They could have taken a victory lap outside the T-Mobile Arena and no one would have seemed to mind.
They are the architects of NHL expansion, the gatekeepers who decide which cities are in the league and which cities must watch from the sidelines. They came up with the plan — hatched privately a decade ago — for billionaire Bill Foley to pay $500 million to put a team among the gamblers, degenerates and, yes, upstanding citizens of the city where fun never stops.
They then made sure it would work, despite all the naysayers who said hockey would never catch on in the desert and certainly not in a city where there are a lot of other things to do than watch hockey players race up and down the ice.
But even the top league execs didn’t expect this.
“No one saw this coming,” Bettman said.
They didn’t in New York, and they didn’t in Las Vegas. A generous expansion draft helped set the Knights up to be competitive, but competitive doesn’t mean scoring 109 points in the regular season and then going 13-3 in the playoffs.
Competitive doesn’t mean taking the ice on Memorial Day with nearly 19,000 crazed Knights fans cheering them on inside the arena on the Strip and thousands more partying as the game unfolded on big-screen TVs outside.
It was, as Bettman pointed out, 342 days since the expansion draft in the same arena. And what a 342 days it has been for not only the new franchise but a league that took a chance on Sin City when no other league would.
Bettman and Daly rolled the dice that Las Vegas would raise the league’s profile and not just because it isn’t, well, Columbus or Ottawa.
“We thought being in Las Vegas would give hockey a greater presence and make the game stronger,” Bettman said.
The results, at least so far, show that bet paying off. Las Vegas has gone mad over the Golden Knights, and hockey is thriving in a town where most ice is made for drinks, not rinks.
And the NHL is on a bit of a roll itself. The controversial decision not to halt play during the middle of the season for the Olympics paid off in increased attention for professional hockey and television ratings for the playoffs, while not nearly up to NBA levels, are up across the board.
And so far no one has said a word about the evils of sports betting and how a major sports franchise can’t exist in a city that allows it.
“This commissioner wasn’t scared by the things other sports leagues may have been scared about,” Daly said.
No one, of course, could have expected a hockey team to help heal a city in the wake of the Oct. 1 massacre that killed 58 people just down the street from the hockey arena. But the Knights helped that cause, too, adopting the Vegas Strong name and honoring victims not only at the opener nine days after the shooting but at games since.
The players — who call themselves the Golden Misfits — have also done their part, both on and off the ice.
“They seem to be playing with the emotion of a higher purpose,” Bettman said.
That’s one reason why the bookies had them favored to beat the Caps and win the iconic trophy before the first puck dropped in Game 1. So far they’ve not only run through every obstacle in their way, but smashed through them.
Good times in Las Vegas, and good times for the NHL.
Little wonder that Bettman and Daly couldn’t stop smiling.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg