08/21/2003 11:00PM

Pro hockey in the desert has it all - except players


Starting up an expansion team in professional sports offers a lot of headaches, but how about this for a migraine - the players go on strike before the first game.

That in essence is what Las Vegas's newest sports franchise, the Wranglers of the Class AA East Coast Hockey League, is facing weeks before their first exhibition game on Oct. 10 versus the Bakersfield Condors.

However, Billy Johnson, vice president of the Wranglers, is not concerned.

"It really doesn't have a whole lot of bearing in what we're doing here," said Johnson, who maintains a hectic schedule with seven weeks until the first game. "The current player development contract is up heading into this year so there is an ongoing negotiation for a new agreement. Strike is usually a fancy word for a deadline."

Larry Landon, president of the Professional Hockey Players Association, told the Naples (Fla.) News, "We have advised players to stay away from the playing city and we are informing all agents as well."

ECHL players are not contracted year-round. The league pay scale is modest, so most players work during the off-season to supplement their income. Apparently, a major bone of contention is year-round family health insurance.

Life in the Wranglers front office goes on, as more than 1,500 "full season ticket equivalents" have been sold. Johnson believes that an average attendance of 4,500 a game is do-able in the team's inaugural season.

"The buzz on the street is good," he said. "We're taking a slow methodical approach to make sure hockey works in Las Vegas."

Johnson, who worked for the minor league baseball Louisville River Bats before coming here, has heard about the checkered past of pro sports in Las Vegas.

By last count, 20 sports teams have failed to survive this marketplace. Only the baseball Las Vegas 51s have stood the test of time - nearly 20 seasons at Cashman Field.

The Wranglers received some instant credibility when they reached a working agreement to be a farm team of the NHL Calgary Flames.

There is a unique synergy in place between a team and a casino that has only one parallel in sports, the WNBA Connecticut Sun are owned and play in an arena built by the Mohegan Sun.

The Wranglers are not owned by Coast Resorts, but they will play in the brand new Orleans Arena built by Coast Resorts, which Johnson called, "Beautiful! If it had 12,000 more seats it would rival any major league arena."

The Orleans Arena was designed to be smaller on purpose. It will seat 7,100 for hockey and 9,000 for concerts. It cost $65 million to build and has 22 VIP suites and 248 club seats. There is free parking for 8,000 cars. No minor league team in the U.S. will play in a classier venue than this.

Johnson lauded the working relationship with Steve Stallworth, vice president of The Orleans Arena and the Coast Resorts.

"Since the Coast Resorts are so locally and family based, that by definition is what minor league hockey is," Johnson said. "It's affordable family entertainment. You couldn't find two mission statements that mesh together as well as we two do."

Coast is bending over backwards to help the Wranglers be successful. The team is the anchor tenant, supplying 37 game dates plus any in the playoffs.

Richard Eng is turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.