Small businesses could learn a lot from the Cinderella success story of the Las Vegas Golden Knights

Small businesses could learn a lot from the Cinderella success story of the Las Vegas Golden Knights

April 22, 2018

While the final chapter to the Las Vegas Golden Knight’s Cinderella story has yet to be written, and we’re really not sure if the glass skate will fit, the season is already a major success. The once 500 to 1 long shot National Hockey League expansion team is just four wins away from history as they take to the ice this Monday night in an effort to win the Stanley Cup in a best of seven series against the Washington Capitals.

Regardless of the outcome of the Stanley Cup Finals, for the Golden Knights, the season is already a rousing success as a team of players and a coach that nobody else wanted have pulled together and have already done what no other expansion team before them; come this far in their first year.

But how did they do it? What made them so different? And as a small business owner, what lesson can you take away from their story?

In a city where Frank Sinatra crooned, the Rat Pack roamed, Sugar Ray Leonard fought and Liberace headlined, the Golden Knights are proving to be one of the most celebrated acts in Las Vegas history.

The expansion team defeated the Winnipeg Jets to win the Western Conference final in five games and earn an improbable berth to the Stanley Cup Final.

Fourth-liner Ryan Reaves, a Winnipeg native who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a complicated three-team deal, scored the game-winning goal in the second period.

If the Golden Knights triumph against Washington Capitals, they would be considered one of the most unlikely champions in sports history; we’re talking Buster Douglas taking down Mike Tyson, New York’s 1969 “Miracle Mets” or No. 8 seed Villanova beating Georgetown to win the 1985 NCAA championship.

Historically, expansion teams are set up to initially fail. In the modern era, the Golden Knights, who went 51-24-7 in the regular season, are the first expansion team in the four major sports to post a winning record. The last two NHL expansion teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, won 28 and 25 games, respectively, in 2000-01.

Most experts predicted the Golden Knights would finish among the league’s worst teams. Nobody believed they could finish with the fifth-best record.

The Golden Knights might be the best team story in the NHL since the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers rewrote the record book in the 1980s with four Stanley Cups in five seasons.

It is a feel-good tale. The Las Vegas community and the team bonded before the first puck was dropped because of the Oct. 1 tragedy that saw 58 people die in a mass shooting during a concert in the city.

As team members supported the victims’ families and first responders, the connection with fans grew stronger. On opening night, Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland made an emotional, inspirational speech at center ice that will never be forgotten.

The community was strong, and it turned out the team was strong on the ice. With speed, passion and aggressiveness, the Golden Knights have played a perfect style for this era of hockey.

The Golden Knights have become just as unique in their presentation of the game, using theatrics and creativity at T-Mobile Arena. Laser shows. Elvis impersonators. Showgirls. Skits. Swordplay. Wayne Newton. Humorous comedy bits on the video screen. A castle in the stands.

All of the players are popular, but none more so than goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the former Pittsburgh Penguins star who has launched the second act of his career in Las Vegas.

Although the Golden Knights’ success has been an exciting story line, not everyone is celebrating it.

Some fans believe winning should take time. They point out important franchises have never won a Stanley Cup. The storied Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won since 1967.

The NHL changed the player-protection rules in the expansion draft to give the Golden Knights a greater opportunity at forming a better roster than previous expansion teams.

The 30 other teams were allowed to protect seven forwards and three defensemen and one goalie or eight forwards/defensemen and one goalie.

That means the Golden Knights, in theory, landed the 10th- or 12th-best player on every team’s roster.

They were supposed to get third-line forwards and No. 4 defensemen, but they did better than that because general manager George McPhee shrewdly managed the assets to land first-liners Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson and a top goalie in Fleury.

The Golden Knights have earned this impossible dream trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Like players, like coach

Just months after being prematurely let go by the Florida Panthers (and having to find his own ride home) Gerard Gallant was announced as the first-ever head coach of the Golden Knights last April. The expansion draft, entry draft and free agency period came and went, and just about everyone thought Vegas would look the part of a first-year NHL team — a bottom-dwelling club with little to no success in its inaugural season.

And boy were they wrong.

Fast forward a few months and the Golden Knights not only clinched a playoff berth, but also clinched the Pacific Division with 109 points and a 51-24-7 record in its inaugural campaign.

Not bad!

Obviously there are a lot of reasons for the Golden Knights being in this position. Vegas lucked out by getting Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft and having castoffs like William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Nate Schmidt, among many others, form an impressive core. But at the end of the day, Gallant is the glue that’s held the Golden Knights together. His relentless pursuit of immediate success has been evident throughout the season, and his speed-oriented, possession-driven system has proven to be one of the NHL’s toughest to beat.

The Golden Knights are just four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. And it’s hard to imagine the Knights being where there are now with anyone other than Gallant on the Vegas bench.

Like a strong business manager who knows how to manage his or her personnel as part of a strong and successful business model, coach Gerard Gallant did that for his team and found success on the ice.

A strong team behind the scenes too

While the VGK players remain the focus of the general public and it’s fan base, making headlines as the Cinderella team of all Conderella teams, there is another team that worked long hours behind the VGK headlines, in the offices at the VGK’s headquarters – the business team led by team President Kerry Bubolz.

Just days after the VGK skated into history with a Stanley Cup Final berth the team’s business staffers received a lofty recognition themselves by winning the Sports Business Journal team of the year. The Sports Business Journal is a trade publication that covers the business side of sports in the U.S.

The Golden Knights business staffers were much like the players, coming to Las Vegas from different teams from around the nation.

Kerry Bubolz, the team president, came from the Cleveland Cavaliers where he oversaw the NBA team’s business operations. He began his sports management career in minor league baseball.

In corporate sales, Jim “Phil” Frevola moved to Las Vegas from the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers to generate millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and partnerships for the Golden Knights. He previously had the same job for the Las Vegas-based UFC.

Chief Marketing Officer Brian Killingsworth, who worked on the team’s merchandise sales around the world, joined his pal, Frevola, from the NFL Bucs after working for the MLB Tampa Bay Rays.

Ticketing & Suites VP Todd Pollock, worked for the San Francisco 49ers.

Jonny Greco, VP for events and entertainment, worked for World Wrestling Entertainment and previously worked for teams in just about every sports league.

And Communications VP Eric Tosi joined the VGK from the Boston Bruins.

There are many more behind the scenes business staffers who deserve recognition for the team’s business success as the team gets back to work on Monday, both on the ice and behind the scenes.

As a small business owner, your takeaway is recognizing that sometimes you may not need the best players and support staff to succeed. To truly be successful you need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your players (employees) and as their coach (employer), be willing to nurture their potential so that they work cohesively as a team rather than individuals.

Sources: USA Today, Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Sports Biz.