Like summer temperatures, hockey soars in Las Vegas, Dallas

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John Locher/AP

Vegas Golden Knights center Cody Eakin (21) reaches for the puck in front of Dallas Stars goaltender Ben Bishop (30) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Las Vegas.

Fri, Mar 15, 2019 (2 a.m.)

DALLAS — The temperature here routinely hits triple digits in the summer. Snow gets the locals in a frenzy, and hockey traditionalists turned up their noses at the thought of their sport thriving here.

Might sound familiar to Vegas Golden Knights fans.

But Texas has had a largely successful foray into the NHL since 1993, when the former Minnesota North Stars arrived and became just the Stars. The Golden Knights face the Stars tonight in Dallas.

The Stars made the playoffs in 12 of their first 14 seasons in Dallas, won back-to-back Western Conference titles to close the 20th century and hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1999.

Vegas is unique among its Southwestern brethren in that hockey was the first major league sport to enter the market. Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Denver and Dallas all had other pro teams. The Golden Knights are the only show among North American sports’ big four and don’t have to compete with anyone else until the NFL’s Raiders arrive in 2020.

And they certainly don’t have to compete with America’s Team.

“Dallas Cowboys, they’re their own thing, a whole different animal,” said Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith, who played the first two years of his career with the Stars. “It’s nice to be the only franchise (in Las Vegas) right now. I’m sure things will change a little bit when the Raiders get here, but as of right now, it’s been awesome.”

Smith said he never felt like the Stars were competing for fans.

They average 18,172 fans per game and filled their arena to 98.1 percent capacity this season — middle of the pack numbers for the NHL. When the Stars won the Central Division in 2016, they sold out every playoff game.

“They’re sports fanatics in Dallas, and they sure do love a winning team,” Vegas forward and five-year Stars veteran Cody Eakin said. “They’re waiting for something to happen there, a good long playoff run to give them some energy, but they have the support for it.”

Smith is experienced in nontraditional hockey markets. This is his eighth season in the NHL, with six of them in Dallas, Florida or Las Vegas. The other two were in Boston. He said Las Vegas feels closer to Boston than it does to the other Sun Belt cities.

“It’s funny because Vegas, with the success we had last year and the fan base we had, it felt like this team’s been around for 50 years,” Smith said. “That compared to places like Florida, where we had playoff games that weren’t sold out, it’s just a different environment to play.”

Maybe when the Raiders arrive and Las Vegas becomes an NFL city, the Golden Knights cede top billing to the silver and black. But right now, the Golden Knights enjoy being the main event.

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