LAS VEGAS — For the second consecutive week, college hockey moves to a somewhat uncharted territory out west.
Last weekend was the SoCal Clash in Irvine, Calif., where Harvard and Arizona State squared off in front of near-or-beyond capacity crowds over two days just outside of Anaheim.
This weekend, a relatively short car ride away, four of the nation’s best teams will meet in the Fortress Invitational in Las Vegas. The field is easily the best of any in-season tournament in recent memory – resembling more of an NCAA regional than a holiday championship.
No. 2 Cornell, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 14 Providence and No. 20 Army will all duel to see which team can take home a trophy in the third edition of this event.
And while Irvine’s event was more about proving the a college hockey team could exist in Pac-12 country, similar to one of its participant, Arizona State, this weekend is about proving to the NCAA and college hockey that Las Vegas would be an ideal spot to host a future Frozen Four.
“Whoever the decision makers are for the Frozen Four, we hope all eyes [will be on Vegas],” said Max Winebrenner from BD Global Sports, the sports marketing company responsible for hosting this tournament. Winebrenner serves as the tournament director. “Not only do we want to have a great event for the Golden Knights, we want to have a great college hockey event.
“[The Golden Knights] wanted to do this to attract a Frozen Four, and I think they’re well on their way to doing that.”
Bringing an event to the Nevada desert isn’t exactly simple. Far beyond the logistics of bringing four teams from far away to Las Vegas and making sure their needs are looked after, there is a massive coordination that is necessary to market the event.
Whereas the first year’s tournament drew more than 2,000 each night, last year’s fell below that 2,000-fan plateau. According to Winebrenner, though, this year’s event looks to minimally double last year’s number, if not triple.
For 2020, the tournament organizers teamed with the Golden Knights instead of working around them. Whereas most NHL teams would head on the road when an event like this comes to their venue, the Golden Knights, instead, will be part of a hockey tripleheader on Saturday featuring a 1 p.m. matinee NHL game followed by the championship and consolation games of the Fortress Invitational, a move that the organizers hope boost attendance.
“We expect there to be 4,000 people for each night and, based on our matchups for Saturday, it could be over 5,000 based on the walkups and the amount we expect,” said Winebrenner. “We’re really excited. It should be a fun time on Saturday with a triple header.”
The roots of this tournament can be traced back to the Golden Knights as well as MGM, which has a stake in the arena and controls many of the casino hotels in the local area. The Golden Knights president of hockey operations, George McPhee, played his college hockey at Bowling Green under current Boston College head coach Jerry York. McPhee has been involved in the event since the beginning, helping create connections to potential teams, helping secure practice space at the Golden Knights facility, City National Arena. And helping make sure that teams have a great experience to help the city of Las Vegas stand out.
With the help of MGM, BD Global Sports was hired to run the event. Mainly known for their ties to college basketball, BD Global learned the ropes because of a connection between company president Brooks Downing and ECAC Hockey commissioner Steve Hagwell.
“We bounced ideas off each other and [Steve] led us in the right direction,” said Winebrenner. “He kind of said ‘These are the ways that teams do things on the hockey side. It’s a little different from the basketball side. They look for competitive games.’
“We knew for a fact we’d be able to put that together. In the first year, we had some bumps in the road, but in the third year, with the partnership we have with the Golden Knights, it puts this event over the top.”
The fact that this year’s field is not just the most competitive in the three-year history but also likely of any holiday tournament in recent memory is part to do with luck, but also part to do with defining the type of program this event looked to attract.
“When we first started this event, this was the type of caliber teams we were looking for,” Winebrenner said. “There’s a lot of planning, but not only is there a lot of hunger for teams to jump into an event like this, you’re wanting the best teams to come here.
“In a remarkable city like Las Vegas, any team is going to want to jump on that.”