We catch up with Wranglers boss Billy Johnson on a day when he’s acutely suspended between past and future, between old and new. This morning, former Chicago White Sox skipper Jim Fregosi died. “He was one of the first guys I knew who was really nice to me in pro sports, when I was a 19-year-old mascot and he was manager of the (Louisville) Redbirds,” says a rueful Johnson, who doesn’t like to see old-school wisdom pass from this world — one reason he enjoys Vegas is that there are still old-timers here. Then, later this afternoon, he and Wranglers owner Gary Jacob will conclude the negotiations that’ll land the team at The Plaza downtown, ending the less-than-pleasant drama that began when The Orleans declined to renew the team’s lease at its arena. As we talk, Johnson can’t tell us what’s up, only that it would be “funky” and a surprisingly good fit. Later, after the news breaks, he will text us a smiley face.
Asked to don a Wranglers jersey for this photo, Johnson declines, for the same reason he won’t be photographed with a hockey stick: He never played the game and doesn’t want to disrespect the athletes who do.
Sometimes, the past foreshadows the present. As a mascot, Johnson didn’t merely hop around in his overlarge bird suit or spazz out when the other team scored. He has the heart and mind of a writer — it’s all about narrative. “I had a set list of 90-second routines that had setups and punch lines,” he recalls. “I had 20, 25 of those, and I would create a set list every night. I basically had my own show. For two or three years, it put me on the front lines of the entertainment part of sports.” Now he employs the same instincts as the Wrangler’s promotional mastermind. You might’ve heard about Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night. What about Rob Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night? “It was programmed from start to finish,” he says. “It was theater. We had bars painted on the penalty box, I made the goal judges wear powdered wigs and robes, the music was all Johnny Cash-themed …”
He needs such transcendent silliness. “According to some research, 95 percent of the people in Las Vegas don’t care about minor-league hockey,” Johnson says. “So I only have 5 percent of the people.” If he’s going to pump that percentage up, he’s got to reach more than the pucking faithful. “I want to invite the uninvited,” he says — the people who might not otherwise be comfortable engaging with the city’s entertainment-industrial complex. “The tapestry of promotions and publicity stunts all invite people in.” If they won’t come for the hockey, he reasons, give ’em a different kind of fun and maybe they’ll stay. (Though “fun” is, of course, a subjective concept. “The Cheney thing resulted in a few death threats on my phone from people in other parts of the country,” Johnson says wryly.)
About that narrative impulse: You can look up Johnson’s novel, If I Die, Tell Steve Martin I Found His Journal, on amazon.com. “Smart, funny, intelligently written,” says the top review.
“I’ll give you an anecdote,” Johnson says. We’ve been talking about the team’s relationship to the city, about how difficult the venue hassles have been. “On Jan. 31, we came back after an extended road trip, and the place was sold-out. We sold standing-room-only tickets. The guys were so moved by that, we probably played the best hockey game of the year. That community connection just tied into that one night — it was probably the most perfect night in Wranglers history, and we didn’t win a championship, we didn’t win a big game …” Weeks later, he’s still moved by the memory. “To be part of something good is worth fighting for,” he says.