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Viva Las Vegas: The Melting Pot of Adult Hockey

By Dave Pond - USA Hockey, 10/18/23, 2:30PM PDT


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The Las Vegas Golden Knights Adult Hockey Program is a thriving community of players of all ages and skill levels. The program offers a variety of leagues and programs to meet the needs of all players, from those new to the game to those looking for a competitive challenge.

“One of our common philosophies here is, ‘Like hockey, community is a contact sport,’” said Andrew Stewart, Senior Director of Facility Operations & Hockey Programming for the Vegas Golden Knights. “It’s a simple statement, but it holds true. Our NHL and AHL professional teams don’t exist without the interest and following of those within our community, and our ice rinks don’t succeed without making sure the community has a place to play, those rinks were designed to operate not just for the professional teams to train, but to provide hockey programming at all levels of play.

Stewart has over a decade of experience working in hockey programming and is passionate about growing the sport in Las Vegas.

"I joined the Vegas Golden Knights with the immediate task of establishing the city of Las Vegas to become full of hockey programs," Stewart said. "When Darren Eliot (Vice President of Hockey Programming & Operations) and I arrived in town, we began this journey by reestablishing the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association."

Adult Hockey Hotbed

The Golden Knights’ adult program – led by Tina Karris, Carolyn Mortenson, and Robert Pallin – offers players from a wide variety of backgrounds a wealth of learn-to-skate and learn-to-play sessions, plus year-round, seasonal adult league play for all experience levels.

“We have one of the most unrivaled adult league programs throughout the United States,” Stewart said. “Las Vegas hockey is unique in that we are a unique mix of individuals who grew up living in the city and those who have relocated to the city – and these adults want to be on the ice training and exercising just as much as the kids do.  So, participation in our adult leagues isn’t just healthy, it continues to grow at all aspects of experience levels.” 

Like many hockey communities, Vegas’ local ice rinks are packed with teams who are either a bunch of friends who already know each other and formed a team or those who have gotten to know each other through their work.

As you can imagine, Las Vegas features many one-of-a-kind entertainment businesses, and despite where they work, most locals are simply working-class people no different from those in the rest of the country – they just happen to work at some pretty iconic businesses.

“It can be pretty humorous to see the names of the local businesses that sponsor a local adult hockey team,” Stewart said. “I’d be lying if I said a few of the team names or their jersey designs don’t have us all laughing a bit with how creative they are.”

Beyond attracting local businessmen and women, Las Vegas is located in very close proximity to Nellis Air Force Base and is also home to one of the most robust police and first-responder professional fields in the country.

“Our leagues are filled with local teams consisting of police, fire, and military participants,” Stewart said. “It is really unique to see how the sport of hockey models these professional fields in all aspects of teamwork.”

Key Programs Fuel Growth

As you look at skill development, it’s easy to see that the Golden Knights’ adult learn-to-skate and adult learn-to-play programs play a pivotal part in the program’s growing success – no matter what time of year it may be.

“Participants in these programs usually go through a few sessions collectively as individuals, and then – thanks to the time they’ve spent together in the locker room – contact our Hockey Directors within a few months, asking to form a new team because now they are all friends.”

In fact, Stewart said they seem to add new teams of all skill levels into leagues non-stop.

“We see a large number of transplant individuals who are moving to Las Vegas for various work or personal reasons,” he said. “Las Vegas truly is a melting pot of hockey culture from throughout North America. Everybody is bringing their sense of hockey community and hockey culture from what they know from the areas they grew up in before arriving in Las Vegas.” 

The last group that has impacted the program’s growth at the highest level is a talented one – former members of collegiate and junior hockey programs who have aged out of these classifications.

“They are the reason for our growing A/B levels of adult league play,” Stewart said. “With the growth of our travel hockey program throughout the Las Vegas Valley, we are forecasting that the highest levels of our adult league play will experience the largest and most consistent levels of growth over the next 5-10 years.”

Tight Knit Community

But instead of looking at growth numbers, Stewart prefers to see how the local adult hockey community continues to bring people together across the Las Vegas region. 

“It is not uncommon for our ice rinks to host a dozen or so charity games or tournaments throughout the season,” Stewart said. “Our military, police, and first responders are continuously hosting events that bring upwards of 300 guests to partake in watching an adult charity hockey game to benefit a good cause.

“The coolest part is seeing these service members play some high levels of hockey, too” he continued. “They are not just police officers putting on ice skates and going for a quick skate around the ice rink – these are some pretty highly talented hockey players, so the games themselves are very entertaining and good hockey to watch.”

It’s not uncommon for Vegas Golden Knights players or media personalities to appear at these events, which have consistently grown from three-day weekend tourneys to what Stewart describes as “complete building takeovers.”

“Because we’re in Las Vegas, it’s not a hard sell to tell anyone to come and vacation here, but when you bring a bunch of first responders to play some hockey, enjoy the fruits and entertainment of the city, and benefit a local charitable cause, it really helps. To see an adult league tournament have upwards of 40-60 participating teams is starting to become the new normal around here.”

With both City National Arena and America First Center buildings filled up with adult league programs, the Golden Knights’ program’s directors have been discussing launching an even larger year-end playoffs to go head-to-head with our cross-town teams. But whatever the future holds, accessibility to our sport will remain the team’s number-one priority.

“Our staff coaches are truly great at what they do, in terms of designing lesson plans for all levels of experience, and they can adapt within a moment's notice to format a drill or practice session based on what the class participation is for the day,” Stewart said. “We never tell an individual looking to register into a program they have to wait until the next session to start or enroll into a program. So, if someone is new to the city looking to play hockey or join a team, our team of directors will be ready to get them onto the ice and have their jersey ready to go.”