Before the Golden Knights arrived, not many would have called Las Vegas a hockey hotbed.
It's pretty uncommon to have one player who's a native of Vegas in a team's system, let alone two.
The Penguins, though, currently do have two players native to the desert town currently playing in their system -- Ross McMullan in Wheeling, and Gage Quinney in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
"I think we set some sort of record with that," McMullan said about the feat in a chat earlier this week.
McMullan, a 26-year-old defenseman, and Quinney, a 22-year-old center, spent the entirety of the 2016-17 season in Wheeling, a reunion for two guys who skated together as kids.
I spoke with both McMullan and Quinney this week about their experiences growing up in Las Vegas, their thoughts on the Golden Knights, and what they think the outlook is like for Vegas hockey in the future.
Quinney, the son of former Québec Nordique Ken Quinney, got his start on the ice at an early age. McMullan got his start with roller hockey, something he said was popular in the area at the time, and didn't switch to ice hockey until he was seven.
Opportunities were not abundant, to say the least.
"Growing up there were two rinks," Quinney said. "One was in a casino, the Santa Fe. The other was a rink like five, ten minutes away."
Along with a shortage of ice, there was a shortage of teams. When both were growing up, there was only ever one team per age group in the area. The main struggle, McMullan said, was finding other teams for tournaments.
"You'd have to go four hours to Anaheim, four and a half to Phoenix, you couldn't just play the next town over," he said.
That all changed when Las Vegas was awarded the Golden Knights, though. The team partnered with the local youth hockey organization last spring, providing resources like ice time and equipment in an effort to grow the game in the area.
"There's definitely more teams, for sure," Quinney said of the recent growth in youth hockey. "It's awesome to see."
"There's been an insane amount of excitement with the new team, obviously," McMullan said. "They came in and built that rink and there's now five sheets of ice, and I hear there's another sheet coming ... There's an explosion of young kids signing up to play hockey. The team in the NHL is helping out a lot with providing equipment and things for guys, so that's great."
Even though hockey in the area is still on the rise, neither player struggles to find training opportunities in the offseason. McMullan reached out to longtime Vegas resident Deryk Engelland for advice, and Engelland was able to connect McMullan with a group of local hockey players who train together. The Penguins set Quinney up with his own trainer, something that he said was "huge" for his progress.
McMullan and Quinney both said they try to catch their hometown team's games as often as they can, when the time zones and broadcast schedules allow. McMullan especially is excited about his new favorite team, and sports his Golden Knights gear whenever he can.
"It's cool to be a fan, he said. "I never thought being a fan was that great, but it is actually cool to be a fan ... I follow them, I brag about them, I tell everyone that they're the best team in hockey, going to win the Stanley Cup, no question. I don't know if that'll happen, but I hope so."
McMullan's family owns an Irish pub about two miles from the arena, and they've experienced a rise in business with the new team.
"My dad bought a bus and wrapped it in Golden Knights stuff," McMullan said. "It shuttles people from the pub to the games and back. It's been exciting for us to have a team and to have fans in the place."
With tonight's game between the Penguins and the Golden Knights, both players are excited about the matchup but are conflicted about who to pull for.
Quinney, with more of a tie to Pittsburgh after attending their training camp, said he's split right down the middle. "I really just try to root for both teams," he said.
McMullan, though, is leaning more towards Vegas. "I think the Penguins would be okay if they get dealt a loss to the Golden Knights," he laughed. "It's not like I'm rooting against the Penguins, I'm just rooting for the Golden Knights."
"It's exciting that (Marc-André Fleury) just came back," he continued. "It's amazing how well they're doing. Absolutely amazing. They're the real deal, I think."
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