📝 by Patrick Williams
Henderson Silver Knights general manager Tim Speltz loves his team’s new home for its hockey amenities and what they can mean for developing National Hockey League-bound talent.
Gabe Mirabelli, the director of enterprise operations for the Vegas Golden Knights, imagines the entertainment possibilities that a state-of-art facility can provide to a fast-growing community inside of a booming metropolitan market like Las Vegas.
For fans, well, the sightlines and luxurious setting will be appealing. And the players? They have an opportunity to utilize those hockey amenities and skate in a lively atmosphere each game night.
The American Hockey League’s newest arena opened Saturday night with the second-year Silver Knights coronating the $84-million, 5,567-seat Dollar Loan Center in a meeting with the Bakersfield Condors.
Henderson’s new home is one of three AHL arenas scheduled to debut in 2022. Next season the expansion Coachella Valley Firebirds open their 11,000-seat Acrisure Arena. To the north, the San Jose Barracuda will move into their own dedicated facility, Tech CU Arena. That building will be attached to the club’s Sharks Ice at San Jose practice facility that they share with the parent San Jose Sharks.
“I think it’s going to be nothing but a benefit for the players,” Speltz said of his team’s new quarters. “I mean, there are some great buildings in the American Hockey League. I think the amenities that we’ll have will be second to none, and I think players will greatly enjoy that.”
Saturday’s opening capped a remarkably efficient timeline for the Golden Knights organization and its AHL operation. On Feb. 6, 2020, the Golden Knights purchased a franchise membership that the AHL subsequently approved 22 days later. The Silver Knights then began play last season.
Now just shy of 26 months after purchasing the franchise, the Golden Knights have a productive AHL affiliate playing inside their market and inside of a brand-new home custom-built for hockey. Demolition of an existing structure began in August 2020, a special ceremony was held two months later, and the arena’s first event was the Big West conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments last month.
“Really, when you think about it, it was 15 to 16 months [to build], which is pretty incredible,” Mirabelli said. “Huge credit to [contracting company] Whiting-Turner. They did an excellent job meeting their timeline, and they were done in time to play some hockey.
“It was a full sprint to get to where we are.”
Dollar Loan Center is located in Henderson, a rapidly growing city in the Las Vegas Valley. A 20-minute drive separates Dollar Loan Center from the Las Vegas Strip, home to the parent club’s T-Mobile Arena. While Las Vegas is home to numerous sports and entertainment facilities, Henderson residents had lacked one of their own away from the packed tourist crowds.
“People come from all over the world to be entertained in Vegas,” Mirabelli began. “But you know, almost all the venues are on the Strip, right? They almost all have their unique niche.
“What we wanted to do when we set out on this venture was, we wanted to own Henderson. It is its own city. We wanted to own Henderson, we wanted to own families, and we wanted to own sports.
“This building [is] kind of in the heart of a community where people can walk to, people can ride their bikes, and even just walk over from the [Green Valley] District or Green Valley Ranch. It was really an opportunity to bring something different, and that’s what we’ve tried to do from the start. We recognize this opportunity and are glad people are excited about it.”
But first and foremost, Dollar Loan Center is made for hockey, and the design process included considerable input from Golden Knights management, with hockey operations president George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon closely involved.
Henderson’s late-season schedule will enable the Silver Knights ample opportunity to learn their new building before the Calder Cup Playoffs open in May. The Rockford IceHogs come to Dollar Loan Center for a pair of games this week, and a seven-game homestand also concludes the Silver Knights’ regular-season schedule.
“I’d like to give credit to our hockey group,” Mirabelli recounted. “George, Kelly, the equipment staff, and medical team were intimately involved in the design of that [hockey] space, in particular.
“George and Kelly have their fingerprints all over that place. It’s very similar to the layout that we have in T-Mobile. They’ve got what you need to be a top-tier professional athlete. You’ve got your gym space. You’ve got your lounge space, where you can do nutrition. The equipment guys have a great little space. They [have] got a separate coaches suite. It’s kind of the wish list every team wants but might not have just because they [did not] build the building, or they didn’t run it.”
Said Mirabelli, “My favorite thing about the building is how intimate it is. There is not a bad seat, which is something that we take a lot of pride in. You can sit anywhere and feel like you’re right on top of the action. We really only have the lower bowl and then a premium level, so you’re not you’re not dealing with a ton of different levels, sightlines.”
As part of the design process, Mirabelli visited different buildings. What did he like? What did he not like? What worked? What did not? He came away inspired by Compton Family Ice Arena, home to the University of Notre Dame’s hockey program, and the lively atmosphere that a building that size could create.
“That’s the environment that we want to drive,” Mirabelli said. “It’s going to be bumping, just like T-Mobile. We’ve got a great sound system. Our center-hung is beautiful. Daktronics did a great job. So, all the things that we try [to create] in T-Mobile from the fan-experience side led the design and implementation.”
The Craggy Range restaurant is there for hungry hockey-watchers, and an outdoor deck offers dramatic views of the Las Vegas skyline and mountain landscape.
A “modern medieval” theme also dominates the building. Before Saturday night’s contest, fans mingled in the “Tiltyard,” an outdoor plaza. Arena staff wear medieval-style uniforms. Much like the parent club’s home building, a castle dominates one end of Dollar Loan Center. Among the medieval-themed nomenclature, arena suites in Henderson are named “chambers” while elevators have been renamed “hoists.” Henderson players and staff walked the “silver carpet” before facing Bakersfield.
“I’ve walked the building with a number of guests,” Mirabelli said, “and the one comment I get consistently is, ‘I love the size of the seats, and I love the signage.’
“Full credit to our internal designers. They went ahead and actually made the design for [that unique] signage, and it’s really, really cool. It was a lot of time and a big lift… but it came out fantastic.”
In Saturday’s opener, a 5-2 loss for the Silver Knights, both Henderson and Bakersfield played a high-pressure late-season game for an energetic sellout crowd, a development tool that cannot be replicated in any practice setting. Speltz is also aware that having Dollar Loan Center and a practice facility like Lifeguard Arena will help attract talent to the organization in the future. Amenities matter to players more than ever.
“I think the players, they’re looking for opportunity,” Speltz said. “We present an opportunity. I think they know that we will live up to the opportunity we do present.
“But… the opportunity for them to play in front of [passionate fans], that excitement, I think, is fantastic. For players, it’s something they enjoy, and I think it’s something they relish when they’re trying to perform. From that standpoint, I think the atmosphere and the excitement the building will provide will be a great tool for us.”
The three buildings opening in 2022 point to the significant investment that ownership groups are pouring into their AHL operations.
“The standard gets raised with every new building that’s opening,” Speltz said. “I think all teams are going to want the best for their prospects, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this continues.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.