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Desert Companion

Puck Wild

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Brian Bulmer
Photography by Brent Holmes

Brian Bulmer remembers riotous partying and raucous games from the Gamblers era. “The crowds were just as excited about hockey as you saw this year with the Golden Knights.”

Recalling the slap shot days and party-hearty nights of the Las Vegas Gamblers, this city’s first hockey team

Picture this: It’s a crisp Thursday night in late November. The San Jose Sharks have just arrived for a Friday night game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Being gracious hosts, the Knights players invite their opponent out for a night on the Strip, and the Sharks, well, bite. Their thinking:

Come on, it’s a hockey team from Vegas! We can stay out well past dawn, show up for the game with our eyes half-shut, and still whip them.

Some 24 hours later, the Knights skate circles around the hungover Sharks on their way to a blowout victory. Afterward, players from both teams resume the party, even inviting fans to join in. Again, the debauchery lasts into the wee hours — even though the teams will play again Saturday night.

It’s an absurd scenario … in 2018. But 50 years ago? It was as real as a slap shot to the groin.

Meet the Las Vegas Gamblers, our city’s first professional (okay, semi-professional) hockey team, one made up mostly of twentysomething Canadian transplants who loved to do two things: play hockey and have a good time.

“I remember the first time I saw the movie Slap Shot,” says Mike Monahan, whose father, Charles, was the Gamblers’ first coach. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is exactly what things were like!’ It’s almost a documentary of the Gamblers. It was just that insane.”

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Hockey savants that all of us now are, we’re aware that the Golden Knights’ just-completed inaugural season — magical as it was — wasn’t Las Vegas’ first brush with professional hockey. We know that the Las Vegas Wranglers called the Orleans Arena home from 2003-15, and that the Las Vegas Thunder rocked the Thomas & Mack Center from 1993-99. However, few realize that 11 pro hockey franchises — including a roller hockey team — preceded the Knights.

Fewer still know that the Las Vegas Gamblers were the team that broke the ice, back in 1968. Details concerning how the team formed are scarce, but according to HockeyDB.com — a database website dedicated to the history of professional hockey — the Gamblers played in the California-Nevada Hockey League from 1968-71. They played their home games on Friday and Saturday nights at the city’s only ice-skating venue, the International Ice Palace in Commercial Center, against California teams from such locales as Culver City, West Covina, and Fresno.

The Gamblers’ top goaltender was Dick Engelstad, whose older brother, Ralph, was the Las Vegas developer and businessman who would build the Imperial Palace. And while Ralph Engelstad eventually became an integral figure in Gamblers lore, it was another man with ties to a famous Strip property who was first tapped to lead Las Vegas’ first pro hockey team.

Charles Monahan relocated to Las Vegas from Miami in the early 1960s to work as a sales director for the Las Vegas Convention Center. But before opening Caesars Palace in August 1966, Jay Sarno recruited Monahan to sell the new resort’s 25,000 square feet of convention space. To say Monahan was good at his job is an understatement: According to LVstriphistory.com, he sold $42 million in convention dates before Caesars opened its doors.

Exactly how Monahan’s sales acumen made him an ideal hockey coach is anyone’s guess. Asked to recall how his father, who died in 2005, wound up coaching the Gamblers, Mike Monahan says the family lived “super close to the Ice Palace, he liked ice hockey … they needed a coach, and my old man must’ve coached something at some point back in the day.”

Mike Monahan says his father’s primary task was to whip the players into shape. “I used to go to practices and watch him bark at the players: ‘Breathe later, skate now!’ For the most part, he let the players do their thing, because they were professional. So he just trained them.”

Although HockeyDB.com doesn’t list the Gamblers’ records during their three seasons, Mike Monahan says the team was very successful. “They played some seriously good hockey.”

That assessment is shared by Brian Bulmer, who joined the Gamblers in their third season, a year after his brother, Gary, played for the team. “The Gamblers led their league and didn’t lose a lot of games to those California teams,” Bulmer says. “And visiting teams always lost that Friday night game.”

Ah, yes, the now-infamous “Vegas Flu” — turns out Golden Knights opponents weren’t the first to be stricken with it. “When opposing teams came to Vegas, the Gamblers players would take them out on the town and do Vegas stuff. These were all young guys, mostly Canadians, who didn’t know anything about Las Vegas.”

As raucous as the Thursday night shenanigans were, they were tame compared to the post-game afterparties that were held at the bar overlooking the rink, where players from both teams would booze it up with fans. “They drank and partied like crazy!” Monahan says.

Occasionally, the revelry spilled over to the Monahan home, where the coach and his wife hosted parties for players and fans. And even when the Monahans didn’t extend an invite, players sometimes showed up anyway. “A couple of times, some of the players came over drunk at 11:30 at night. They’d knock on the door, and call out to my mom (in a drunken slur), ‘Hey, Julie, make us food!’ And my mom would get up and make them eggs.”

“Mike’s mom had a keg of Coors constantly flowing,” Bulmer says. “Oh, yeah, I was there quite often.”

Alas, the good times  didn’t last for Charles Monahan; according to Mike Monahan, his father quit after the second season when several of his players began telling him how to coach. So before the third season started, Grimmon “Buddy” MacDonald, one of the team’s older players, took over as player-coach.

By this point, Ralph Engelstad had become heavily involved in the team and attempted to take control of it. (Engelstad had hired several players to work at the Flamingo-Capri hotel, which he owned and eventually absorbed into the Imperial Palace.) Bulmer, who would spend 20 years as a slot manager at the Imperial Palace, says MacDonald resented Engelstad’s increased involvement and pushed him away from the squad. So the budding casino impresario started his own team and filled his roster with Gamblers’ players, who were free to switch teams because there were no contracts.

The Gamblers effectively dissolved at that point (some players, including Buddy MacDonald, went to play for Reno’s team). Engelstad wanted to keep the name Gamblers, but when trademark laws prevented him from doing so, he branded his club the Outlaws.

Rather than join a league, the Outlaws played as an independent against fellow semi-pro teams from Reno, western Canada, and the Midwest. And like the NHL squad that would come along nearly five decades later, the Outlaws enjoyed a wildly successful inaugural season, going 29-8-4 in 1971-72, per HockeyDB.com. That was followed by a 34-5-4 record in 1972-73.

Along the way, both the Gamblers and Outlaws built loyal fan bases. Bulmer says tickets were $4 to $5, and estimates early crowds at the Ice Palace ranged from about 700 to 1,000 for Gamblers games. That attendance more than doubled at the height of the Outlaws’ success. “We were a very small town back then, so the Gamblers were very much a niche thing,” Monahan says. “But they had some very passionate fans. There would be games that would draw a couple of thousand people.”

That includes a crowd of 2,500 that Bulmer says turned out for an exhibition contest against the 1972 U.S. Olympic team after it claimed the silver medal at the Sapporo Games.

“It was weird to see that many people in Las Vegas who were into hockey,” says Bulmer, who grew up in Saskatchewan, where he played junior hockey starting at age 5. “But they got to be knowledgeable. They really did. The crowds were just as excited about hockey as you saw this year with the Golden Knights.”

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Following the 1973-74 season, Bulmer says Engelstad approached the owners of the Ice Palace in hopes of reworking the team’s rink deal. “Ralph was a businessman, and it cost him a lot of money to run that team,” Bulmer says. “He actually lost money.” When the Ice Palace refused to budge, Bulmer says, Engelstad decided to build his own ice arena and start his own hockey league.

He got as far as digging a hole on land he owned near Rainbow Boulevard, but the arena never came to pass. And while Bulmer says Engelstad did launch his new hockey league, it didn’t stick. At about the same time, Engelstad began focusing much of his time, effort, and finances on constructing the Imperial Palace, and as a result, the Outlaws never played another game. (Likewise, without a hockey tenant, the Ice Palace soon closed.)

In the decades since, Bulmer and Mike Monahan have maintained a close friendship. And while Bulmer says he keeps in casual contact with some of his surviving Gamblers and Outlaws teammates, they haven’t had any kind of formal reunion. But Monahan says he knows of a great way to fix that.

“When I found out we were getting the Golden Knights, the first thing I thought was, ‘Man, they should have a Gamblers Night,’” he says. “Whatever players are still with us, bring them out and acknowledge that they were the first guys to bring hockey to Las Vegas 50 years ago.”

“I wouldn’t mind that,” Bulmer says. “But I do understand the difference between the hockey that we played and the NHL. So to put us on the same level is sacrilegious. That said, we were Las Vegas’ first (pro hockey team). And it was pretty damn good hockey.”

Not to mention entertaining, on and off the ice.

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