Two years ago, when the NHL announced that Las Vegas was getting an expansion team, plenty of locals were skeptical.
"There were some people that thought the casinos don’t like competition," says Brian Bulmer, a Vegas resident of nearly 50 years.
Bulmer heard others say that the team would have to rely too heavily on tourists.
"That the locals couldn’t fill it up," he explains.
But Bulmer was optimistic.
"I knew there was people in this town that loved the game," he says.
Bulmer didn’t just have a feeling about that — he knew it. Because, five decades ago, Brian Bulmer played for the first pro hockey team to call Las Vegas home. The team was called the Las Vegas Gamblers — and they paved the way for the Golden Knights.
Enter: The Ice Palace
The story of hockey in Las Vegas really starts with an ice rink.
It was called the Ice Palace, and it was built in the late '60s in a strip mall a few blocks from the Sahara Hotel and Casino.
"And the rink, as I was told, was built by the Teamsters union — or with Teamsters union money," Bulmer says.
If you know a little about the history of Las Vegas, then you know why that's noteworthy.
"Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters union in the late '50s, he was tied to organized crime — there’s really no dispute about that," says Geoff Schumacher, senior director of content for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. "They sorta came up with this scheme for the Teamsters union pension fund to be used to hand out loans for construction of casinos and other things in Las Vegas."
We can’t say for sure whether the mob had anything to do with the Teamsters loaning money to build an ice rink in the middle of the desert, but Bulmer offers this:
"All I can say about that is: we were told that the rink was built with money enough to have individual seating. But when it actually was built, it was just bare, aluminum benches," Bulmer says. "So, that money went somewhere, and I don't know where. But that's just part of the history of this town."
Competition Off The Ice
So the Ice Palace didn’t have individual seats, but it did have a bar overlooking the ice and a regulation size rink. And that was good enough to support the Las Vegas Gamblers.
The team formed in 1968 and started playing teams from L.A., Salt Lake and other nearby cities. The Gamblers had an eclectic roster. They had school teachers and bartenders...blackjack and craps dealers. There was a guy who sold booze to the 600-plus bars in town — and eventually an FBI agent who’d come to practices when he wasn’t catching bank robbers.
But there were a couple challenges for a hockey team trying to attract a crowd in Las Vegas in the late '60s.
First off, there was lots of competition for people’s attention:
"That’s when Elvis Presley was the premier performer in Las Vegas," Schumacher says. "This is the older, heavier Elvis Presley. And he was playing at the International.
"And then down the street you had Liberace. And Liberace was playing to huge crowds. And then you had Tom Jones. And he was selling out showrooms."
And then there was the fact that it was hockey ... in Las Vegas.
I asked Don Woodbury, another former Gambler, if the average people in town knew much about the sport when he arrived in Las Vegas.
"Oh, no. They had no idea," he replied.
In 1968 Woodbury was transferred to Las Vegas for his job with Firestone tires. He’d grown up playing junior hockey in the Ottawa Auditorium, which held 7,000 fans and was built for the sport. As for the Las Vegas Ice Palace?
"This wasn’t," he says. "I mean, I think hockey was an afterthought."
'Teams Wanted To Come Here All The Time'
Woodbury says the Ice Palace only had room for a couple thousand fans. That first season, only a few hundred would show up for games.
In the Gamblers’ game program, there was a section called “Know Your Hockey,” which explained the rules.
But the Gamblers did have a couple of things going for them from the start.
With so many young transplants from Canada and the Midwest living in town, the team was drawing guys who’d grown up playing high-level youth hockey.
And then there was this:
"Was it hard for you guys to ever get teams to come visit and play you guys?" I ask.
"No. Not at all," Bulmer says.
"They loved to play us," Woodbury says.
"Teams wanted to come here all the time," Bulmer says. "As soon as they found out it was available, we could pick and choose."
Teams from the Midwest and beyond started coming to Vegas to play on Friday and Saturday nights. But usually, opponents would get to town on Thursday.
"We'd have a party when they arrived at the hotel. I was gonna say no drinking, but you'd know I was lying," Woodbury says.
"Oh, yeah. Get 'em drunk," says Bill Briski, the booze salesman/defenseman on the Gamblers roster. "Get 'em drunk and tell 'em, 'Hey, take it easy on us. We don't have a whole lot here.' And by the time they woke up, they were behind, 5-1."
"We usually won that first game. We usually did," Bulmer says. "So I have to say that Briski's a pretty smart fellow."
"They thought they were coming out, they were going to do some gambling and drinking, a regular junket. It was a holiday for them, right?" Woodbury says. "But they would get beat, and they would say, 'Oh, God, you guys are really good.' "
'Any Place We Went, We'd Bring The Fans With Us'
So the Gamblers won a lot. And they started drawing bigger crowds.
"It just kind of snowballed," Bulmer says.
Sometimes fans would watch practices. A busload would follow the team to games in Fresno or Reno.
And when the Gamblers played at home, there was a tradition for the players and fans after every game.
"We’d go upstairs and party with them," Woodbury says.
Briski says the bar above the rink would be so packed after games you could barely move. Fans would buy the players drinks — and they’d talk about the game.
And it wasn’t just limited to the bar at the Ice Palace.
"Any place we went, we’d bring fans with us," Briski says.
"I’m not surprised that the people loved you guys if you took 'em out," I say.
"Oh, we had a good time. Yeah. Everybody had a good time."
But while the fans were having a good time, something else was going on.
"Did you notice that over time the crowds became more knowledgeable about the sport?" I ask Brian Bulmer.
"Oh, absolutely," Bulmer says. "Absolutely, that happened. They knew what was going on. They knew what should be going on. Icing, offside, the penalties. When they thought there was a penalty that should be called, they let the refs know."
Woodbury still remembers one fan — a local chef — who’d catch his eye every game and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down, depending on how he felt Woodbury had been playing.
On at least one occasion, a Gamblers fan tried to fight an opposing player. So a hockey culture was developing in Las Vegas.
But drawing fans wasn’t the only way the Gamblers brought the sport to the city.
"We taught so many kids how to skate," Briski says.
"We’d get a folding chair out there and let them push it around the ice," Bulmer says.
"I love the image of you guys as these high-level hockey players — in most other towns, if you guys were coaching youth players, it would probably be the cream of the crop. But here you guys are in Las Vegas, literally teaching little kids how to skate," I say.
"That’s exactly it," Bulmer says. "And it was a lot of fun."
"It was more like a community-type thing," Briksi says. "And the parents would be in there, and that would help our thing, too. Get the parents and the kids interested in our game."
'Hockey Just Died Right There'
Brian Bulmer estimates that over the years, he and his teammates taught a few hundred kids in Las Vegas how to skate.
Then, in the early '70s, a casino owner named Ralph Engelstad took control of the team in Vegas. Instead of the Gamblers, they became the Las Vegas Outlaws.
"And Ralph had a little bit of money, so that's kind of when the hockey started to take off in caliber," Bulmer says.
The Outlaws hosted the 1972 U.S. Olympic team — as well as top squads from Europe.
"We were really starting to build something," Bulmer says.
"Teams wanted to come here all the time. As soon as they found out it was available, we could pick and choose."Brian Bulmer
But like lots of attractions in Las Vegas, the hockey team was hot for a couple years — and then it was on the outs.
The Outlaws folded after the '74-'75 season.
There are a couple possible explanations. Briski says the team got into trouble on an overseas trip. (There may have been too much trash talk against the Russians and too many fights in Germany.)
Bulmer says the owner of the rink and owner of the team couldn’t come to an agreement.
"The rink wasn’t available to us anymore," he says. "And Ralph Engelstad actually started to build his own rink. But it never turned out. And hockey just died right there."
'The Original Las Vegas Gamblers'
But even though the team stopped playing, there were still all those adults in town who’d come to love the sport and all those kids who’d learned to skate.
"I would love to think that some of those people are part of what's out there watching the Golden Knights now," Bulmer says. "And I hope we left a little bit of enjoyment that helped to build with this."
Bulmer and Briski still live in Las Vegas. Woodbury now follows the Golden Knights from L.A. And even though he left Vegas decades ago, he loves talking about his time with the Gamblers.
"I’m telling you, I get so excited, I can’t believe it," Woodbury says. "I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m having more fun than you are. I'm stoked right now."
I told Don Woodbury that that was saying something, because I loved hearing about Las Vegas’s true hockey pioneers.
But it did make me sad to learn that some of the former Gamblers hadn’t made it to a Golden Knights game. Briski told me the tickets were too expensive.
"I think the Golden Knights should honor you guys — should have you guys all come for a game," I say to Woodbury.
"You know, thank you. That would be really great," Woodbury says. "Just introduce us at one — the original Las Vegas Gamblers. I still have my shirt. And we’re all getting old, so if you’ve got anything to do with it, tell 'em they better hurry."
This segment aired on June 2, 2018.