Golden Knights’ Youth Hockey is for Everyone

Part 3 in our series on minor hockey in Las Vegas

There was instant karma between the Vegas Golden Knights and their fanbase from the moment they launched their inaugural NHL campaign during the 2017-18 season.

The Golden Knights are doing their utmost to create that passion for the game at the grassroots level. When it came to youth hockey, the Vegas franchise also hit the ground running, setting out to be a success story in that environment as well.

It all starts with the Vegas Golden Knights Skating Academy, which is basically an all-comers tutorial on the basics of working the blades on ice. Whether they’re interested in hockey or figure skating, all are welcome to come and learn. There’s also no age restrictions. Adults are invited to join their kids in learning the fundamentals of skating.

The next step for the younger graduates of the skating academy interested in pursuing hockey is the learn to play program. An NHL-sponsored program, learn to play is for kids ages 5-9 to begin to develop the skills required to play hockey — stickhandling, passing and shooting.

“Having the learn to skate going into the NHL learn to play and then into the little mite program is substantial,” said former NHL goalie Darren Eliot, who serves as Vice President of Hockey Programming and Facility Operations for the Golden Knights. All participants in the learn to play program must first earn their learn to skate certificate.

Moving on, the Lil’ Knights cross-ice program introduces these kids to actual hockey competition and helps them to understand basic hockey strategies and concepts. It’s the next step toward preparation for house-league competition. Participation in the programs ranges between 240-300 kids.

“And we have good sponsorship outside of that,” Eliot said. The D Las Vegas Hotel Casino has sponsored the entire Lil’ Knights program from Day 1. Thanks to that generosity, students are only responsible for paying a registration fee. That covers jerseys, training aids, and coaching support.

“The Stevens brothers (D Las Vegas Casino Hotel co-owners Derek and Greg Stevens), they’re from Michigan,” Eliot said. “That’s their program, the little mites program. They sponsor that annually and with that sponsorship, it’s just been fantastic with the Golden Knights’ popularity.”

All of the coaches teaching the program are USA Hockey certified. The Lil’ Knights program follows the USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which is designed to help all individuals realize their athletic potential and utilize sport as a path toward an active and healthy lifestyle.

Vegas Minor hockey

“They’re learning offensive and defensive strategies, gap control, things to do with and away from the puck.”

“Kids get a chance to learn drills, they start practicing things in small-area games,” Matt Flynn, the Golden Knights’ senior manager for youth hockey development, told USA Hockey. “They’re learning offensive and defensive strategies, gap control, things to do with and away from the puck.”

Once acclimatized to the game, kids are directed toward house-league play, with the option of pursuing a higher level of hockey through the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights travel hockey program that fields both boys and girls teams.

“We basically build them into becoming good teammates,” Flynn said. “Then, they go into the house league.”

Looking to take hockey teaching to an even higher level in this non-traditional hockey market, Flynn approached middle schools across the Clark County, Nevada area to include hockey in their physical education programs. They supply the gear and educate the phys ed teachers who are unfamiliar with hockey in the ways of the game.

It isn’t just puckhandling and edgework that the Golden Knights seek to instil in their young proteges.

“We try to intermix life skills as much as possible,” Flynn told “You can have coaches, but as a young boy or girl, you need to be coachable. You need to be able to listen and respect your elders and know that someone is trying to help you.

“We’re teaching things like eye contact, a firm handshake and general life skills about working as a team. We try to mix all of that in.”

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Golden Knights Building Minor Hockey Brick by Brick

Part 2 in our series on minor hockey in Las Vegas

There was already youth hockey in town when the Vegas Golden Knights launched as an NHL expansion franchise in 2017. Well, sort of.

The local youth hockey organization counted 100 kids in its 8-under age bracket. Based on analytics, studying the standard patterns of drop out rates in youth sports, by the time that group of kids were 12-13, there would have been barely enough of them still playing to assemble two teams.

In other words, youth hockey wasn’t exactly a growth industry in Vegas. The Golden Knights set out to change that dynamic. Four years later, by all measures, they have accomplished their goal.

At the start of the 2020-21 season, there were more than 800 kids registered to play youth hockey in Vegas in the 8-under division.

“To have it grow eight fold in four years is incredible, said former NHL goalie Darren Eliot, who serves as Vice President of Hockey Programming and Facility Operations for the Golden Knights.

To create a long-term NHL success story in a non-traditional hockey market, the Golden Knights recognized from Day 1 that winning on the ice was just one factor in the equation.

Convincing the community to embrace hockey as their game was going to be every bit as valuable as each win and all the playoff appearances the team could accumulate. Not that success between the boards was a bad idea, mind you. Winning is always helpful.

Eliot, as well as Misha Donskov, the director of hockey operations for the Golden Knights, worked together on similar programs in Atlanta when the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999. But they never were able to create the same kind of environment that’s clicked from Day 1 in Vegas.

“It all goes together,” Eliot said. “They (Golden Knights fans) want to care about their team and they do here. But one advantage we have here that the Thrashers didn’t is that Atlanta never had a playoff run, so there wasn’t that bonding with the team.

“In Vegas, it’s the first pro team and a success all four years. It helps to really embed that kind of loyalty to the Golden Knights.”

Another factor is the team’s willingness to invest in infrastructure at the grassroots level. Bill Foley, owner of the Golden Knights, has put his money where his mouth is, displaying that the club really believes in growing the game and they’re willing to foot the bill to help make it happen.

The club built a practice facility for the Golden Knights with two ice pads that accommodate area youth hockey when not being utilized by the NHL team. They are building a second two-pad ice complex in nearby Henderson, Nevada that will serve as practice facility for the AHL Henderson Silver Knights, the club’s top farm club, and will also be accessible to the youth hockey programs.

“You’ve got seven sheets of ice (for minor hockey) if you add in T-Mobile (Arena, home to the Golden Knights) and the new one coming.”

“Bill Foley and his investors, they built City National Arena to be the Golden Knights practice facility,” Eliot said. “It’s state of the art, a 140,000 square foot two-rink facility. They’ve done the same thing for the American League team. they’re building an event centre where Henderson will play their AHL games. That’ll be open in March. So we built another 120,000 square foot bigger-than-you-need-to facility for youth hockey.

“They added four sheets of ice that we have complete control over and access to.

“There’s two other existing facilities that are pretty beat up but they’re benefiting from the Vegas Golden Knights coming here. So you’ve got seven sheets of ice if you add in T-Mobile (Arena, home to the Golden Knights) and the new one coming.”

Vegas ownership and management succinctly recognize that one of the benefits of building a strong youth hockey program is that through osmosis, it’s also building a bigger fanbase for the team with each passing season.

In these markets that are new to the game, strong youth hockey programs aren’t intended to build future NHL players.

“That’s the unicorn theory,” Eliot said. “It’s a long shot (to make the NHL) no matter where you grow up.”

What a growing youth hockey program will do, however, is build future NHL fans.

It’s a simple philosophy, really.

Take someone to the hockey rink to watch and you’ll make them a fan for a game. Teach someone to play hockey and you’ll make them a fan of the game for life.

“I’m coaching an 8-under youth team,” Eliot said. “We get on the ice once a week and it’s fun. It’s really fun.”

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Vegas Setting New Standard In Minor Hockey

When it comes to NHL success stories, few franchises can measure up to the instant winning formula that was concocted by the Vegas Golden Knights. They were winners from the moment they stepped on the ice.

Vegas finished in first place as a first-year expansion franchise. The Golden Knights established NHL records for the most wins (51) and points (109) compiled by a first-year franchise. They joined the St. Louis Blues as the only NHL teams to reach the Stanley Cup final in their first year of existence. Though they lost to the Washington Capitals in five games, the Golden Knights managed to win a game in the final series, something the Blues weren’t able to do when they were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1967-68 final.

Into their fourth season, the Golden Knights are just one of 19 teams in NHL history to qualify for the playoffs in each of their first four seasons. They were an immediate smash hit and they are working hard to ensure that the future — both the short-term and long-term variety — will be equally fruitful.

“To see the excitement and the enthusiasm in this market has been really rewarding,” said former NHL goalie Darren Eliot, who serves as Vice President of Hockey Programming and Facility Operations for the Golden Knights. “Now we’ve got to keep on focusing.”

Certainly, the on-ice success story of the Golden Knights has helped to create a buzz about the game throughout the Nevada desert. But it’s not just about winning on the ice. From Day 1 for the Golden Knights, it’s been about winning over the people of Las Vegas, converting them into hockey lifers.

And that doesn’t start with a capacity crowd on game night. Sure, that type of environment develops excitement but it’s more of the instant gratification variety, getting caught up in the atmosphere and wanting to be part of that environment. But it’s a strong grassroots youth hockey program that creates hockey fans forever.

The Golden Knights recognized this fact of life from the outset.

“It’s really a long-term investment,” Eliot said.

“The parents are now hockey fans in the moment but their kid is the one who is playing hockey and has an affinity for the game.”

Over the course of his career, Eliot, 59, has frequently found himself situated in what would be termed emerging hockey markets. He tended goal for the Los Angeles Kings from 1984-87. In front-office positions, he’s worked for the Anaheim Ducks when they were still Mighty and for the Atlanta Thrashers.

“I never set out to get my doctorate degree in non-traditional hockey markets,” Eliot said. “ It’s just where the opportunity led me and kind of interested me and now this has become broad based for me.”

Misha Donskov, director of hockey operations for the Golden Knights, worked with Eliot in Atlanta.

“We had some really groundbreaking work done there,” Eliot said of his time in Georgia. “We did a ton of good things for youth hockey, hockey development, and brand extension.”

They also discovered that all of the hard work in a new market doesn’t add up to much if it isn’t backed up by the opportunity for kids to get out and play the game.

Eliot in particular remembered a conversation he had with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was leaving Atlanta and headed to Nashville while on a tour of NHL markets.

I said ‘Hey Gary do you ever drive to Nashville?’” Eliot recalled. “I said, ‘You know how many rinks you pass between Atlanta and Nashville? I’ll tell you the answer — zero.’

“Granting teams to these markets with no infrastructure, you just become an entertainment option, a novelty. In the 20 years since, (the NHL) has really recognized that you have to put in the money and the commitment.”

“It’s about building the infrastructure, because that’s the bigger piece. They’ve all figured that out.”

It’s hard to grow the game if the roots have nowhere to sprout and blossom.

In Vegas, youth programs such as learn to skate, learn to play and skills training are all designed to lead kids into playing organized hockey, whether that be house league or travel. Backing up these on-ice programs is a commitment from team ownership to provide the facilities and sponsors to deliver the financial wherewithal to make it all happen.

“It’s a long-term thing and it all has to come together and you don’t get that without putting in the effort to develop hockey programs in the area,” Eliot said. “That’s the bottom line.”

In the past, most youth hockey programs in non-traditional markets were generally started by Canadians who stayed in the area after their playing days, but there wasn’t any direct link to the team. They were blips on the radar that eventually faded away.

In Vegas, they recognize that long-term success for the franchise isn’t built merely around succeeding on the ice. By building a strong youth hockey program and investing in hockey futures, they are assembling a fan base for years to come. And if you get the kids on board, the adults are sure to follow.

“Seeing families and kids take to the game that we grew up with in Canada taking it for granted, I’m loving every minute of it,” Eliot said.

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