It was a surprise to some that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Rebels qualified for the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division 1 National Championships in their first year at the top level of competition.
But have those people seen what’s going on in the desert? One of the hottest major cities in the United States has become a hotbed for the coolest sport.
Can you say, viva Las Vegas?
Just like the Rebels have enjoyed big success in the ACHA’s top division, their hometown professional counterparts have had their share of success in the world’s best hockey league.
While even the most casual hockey fan is likely aware of the incredible success the expansion Vegas Golden Knights have exhibited during the 2017-18 NHL campaign, the success of the ACHA Division 1 UNLV Rebels may have gone unnoticed.
The 2017-18 season was the Skatin’ Rebels’ inaugural season at the D1 level and the team achieved a degree of success that few expected.
“Nobody gave us a shot to be at this tournament,” declared UNLV head coach Anthony Vignieri Greener. “I am glad to showcase the talent that kids have.”
Beyond simply qualifying for the ACHA National Championships, held March 8-18, in Columbus, Ohio, 13th-ranked UNLV soundly defeated No. 20 Drexel 7-1 in their opening game of the tournament and pushed the No. 4-seeded Ohio University Bobcats to overtime before losing 3-2. It was nonetheless an impressive opening year of play at the top level of ACHA hockey.
Ohio, a historically strong program, has won four national titles and been runner up on three occasions. The Bobcats finished runner-up in 2017.
When discussing the increased level of hockey interest in a town known more for desert and slot machines, Greener was understandably excited.
“The interest has tripled in one year. I tell the story that half of the people I know didn’t know about hockey and [couldn’t] care less about hockey. But now with the Knights, the new facility and T-Mobile Arena, everywhere you go it is just Knights, Knights, Knights! It is awesome to see.”
The addition of NHL hockey has resulted in, to put it mildly, an uptick in youth hockey participation and interest which will assuredly increase the awareness in Rebels hockey.
“The Junior Knights organization is skyrocketing. At the last stick-and-puck skill session I ran, 126 kids signed up to learn to play. USA Hockey and Pure Hockey have done a great job fitting them with gear.”
The new-found interest in the game has spread to the UNLV campus as well.
“Knowing the Knights were coming was a recruiting tool for me. They built a new practice rink, [including] a locker room for us and my recruiting class for last year knew what they were walking into. They helped us in a tremendous way.”
The new facility, City National Arena, is located in Summerlin.
The move up to Division 1 play was part of the strategic plan for Greener, a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and former UNLV player.
“We had a Division 2 team and a core group of kids. It was our goal all along to get [to Division 1]. My staff and I did a good job of going out and getting kids that could play at this level. That was our goal from Day 1 and the staff did the hard work and it is definitely showing.”
And someday, they hope to follow the path of Arizona State University and go from ACHA powerhouse to NCAA Division I program.
Greener’s team has worked hard to achieve their success and, like many, faced the situation of dealing with tragedy in the early season after the Las Vegas shootings on Oct. 1.
Several of UNLV’s players and staff were in attendance at the Route 91 Harvest music festival that day.
“It’s in the past, but it’s not forgotten,” said Greener.
UNLV had a home game scheduled within days of the tragic event and the decision to play was not taken lightly.
“We decided to play. It was kind of distraction for the city. We were able to distract Vegas and the place was packed. It wasn’t about Xs and Os; we were just there for the people in the stands. It was healing in a way,” explained Greener.
The team’s overall performance throughout the season is attributable to kids with “skilled backgrounds” accepting the plans of their coaches.
“They are buying into the systems and working hard. They are at practice three days a week at 8 a.m. and they believe in each other,” assessed the Rebels coach.
The result of hard work and dedication shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.