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Viva Las Vegas! Savannah Ghost Pirates hockey officials announce NHL affiliation

Savannah Morning News logo Savannah Morning News 5/20/2022 Nathan Dominitz, Savannah Morning News

What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but it will happen in Savannah first ... at least when it comes to the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team.

The Savannah Ghost Pirates will be an ECHL affiliate of the Las Vegas-based National Hockey League team when the Ghost Pirates open play later this year. Savannah is an expansion team in the ECHL, a pro hockey minor league similar to Class Double-A in baseball.

Many Golden Knights prospects and draft picks will play for Savannah as part of their player development cycle. From Savannah, the top talent will move on to Vegas' top-tier minor league team, the Henderson Silver Knights of the American Hockey League.

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Ghost Pirates officials made the affiliate announcement Thursday during a celebration for season-ticket holders and the public at the new Enmarket Arena.

Ghost Pirates President Bob Ohrablo said the expansion team is mindful that it has only one first impression in the Savannah market, so the pace on announcements has been deliberate and careful.

"We have one year that will be our first year, and we want to do it right," Ohrablo said. "I know we took a big step today with bringing Vegas in."

Andy Kaufmann, the team's CEO and majority owner, said seven or eight NHL teams could have been available, but the top target was Vegas.

"They are one of the teams that deeply invests in the talent pool at the ECHL level," Kaufman said. "They want to win. They have a history of winning. Even though they're a young franchise, they win."

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Vegas, which concluded its affilation with the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Komets of the ECHL, has a multiyear contract with Savannah, Kaufmann said. Using a phrase appropriate for casinos and sports, Kaufmann said the Golden Knights organization is "all in" on investing talent into their ECHL partner.

"They have a winning culture," Kaufmann said. "We wanted to have a head start. We didn't want to have like a typical expansion, 'give us a few years to build.' We want to win right away."

The logos for both the Savannah Ghost Pirates and the Vegas Golden Knights are seen on the boards during the event to announce the ECHL expansion ice hockey franchise Ghost Pirates' first head coach and NHL team affiliation at the Enmarket Arena on Thursday. Rick Bennett was announced as head coach and the Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliation. © [PHILIP HALL/SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS] The logos for both the Savannah Ghost Pirates and the Vegas Golden Knights are seen on the boards during the event to announce the ECHL expansion ice hockey franchise Ghost Pirates' first head coach and NHL team affiliation at the Enmarket Arena on Thursday. Rick Bennett was announced as head coach and the Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliation.

The press conference was followed by a Casino Night of sorts as gaming tables were set up in the arena and people could play for fun with a chance at winning prizes. There were booths for merchandise and ticket purchases. And there were Vegas-style showgirls. 

"Most teams, when they announce an NHL partner, will send out a press release," Ohrablo said. "We had to have an event. Savannah likes to party. We needed to party."

Bringing a little bit of Vegas to the Hostess City added flair to the announcement, but in hockey terms it means an infusion of talent to the roster. Ohrablo expects five to eight players could be assigned to Savannah from Vegas/Henderson, and the NHL organization will help bring in other players on ECHL contracts.

"Vegas is a means to winning games — a nice, splashy means of doing that," Ohrablo said.

The Ghost Pirates' new head coach Rick Bennett, right, speaks with Savannah mayor Van Johnson to his right during the event to announce the expansion ECHL hockey team's coach and NHL team affiliation at Enmarket Arena on Thursday. The Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliation and the Henderson (Nevada) Silver Knights are the AHL affiliation. © [PHILIP HALL/SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS] The Ghost Pirates' new head coach Rick Bennett, right, speaks with Savannah mayor Van Johnson to his right during the event to announce the expansion ECHL hockey team's coach and NHL team affiliation at Enmarket Arena on Thursday. The Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliation and the Henderson (Nevada) Silver Knights are the AHL affiliation.

New coach Rick Bennett

The team also named Rick Bennett as head coach during Thursday's event. Bennett guided Union College of Schenectady, New York, for 11 seasons, with two Frozen Four (semifinal) appearances including winning the 2014 NCAA Division I national championship. 

Bennett, who also had served as an assistant at Union, had a record of 194-134-45 with three ECAC Hockey tournament titles. The top-ranked 2014 team went 32-6-4, including 17-1-2 against nationally ranked opponents.

Bennett, whose players did not receive athletic scholarships, was the national coach of the year by the American Hockey Coaches Association, College Hockey News and U.S. College Hockey Online.

His tenure came to an end during this past season on Jan. 28, when he resigned after a weeklong investigation into how he coached the team. Athletic director Jim McLaughlin received an anonymous email that triggered the investigation. The allegation about Bennett's coaching style and practices was substantiated through the probe but didn't show a long pattern of misconduct, McLaughlin said.

Details of the alleged incident were not revealed. Bennett had described his coaching style as tough but fair, holding players accountable. Current and former players voiced support for him.

"I arrived at this decision because I felt it is in the best interest of Union College hockey. That has always been at the forefront of my thoughts," Bennett said in a press release. "I wish the program all the best this season and in the future." 

He told reporters that it was his idea to resign and he was not threatened with being fired. He felt it was time to go.

"I’m at peace with the decision, my family, my kids, and I’m actually excited for a new beginning, whether that be another college somewhere at some point, or probably pro hockey to see what options are available there," he told Mike MacAdam of The Daily Gazette in Schenectady. "We’ll see what’s out there."

The Ghost Pirates' new head coach Rick Bennett, at the podium, speaks during the event to announce his hiring as well as the NHL and AHL team affiliations at Enmarket Arena on Thursday. From left: Ghost Pirates CEO and majority owner Andy Kaufmann, team president Bob Ohrablo, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, Bennett, Henderson Silver Kings general manager Tim Speltz and Vegas Golden Knights director of hockey legal affairs Andrew Lugerner. © [PHILIP HALL/SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS] The Ghost Pirates' new head coach Rick Bennett, at the podium, speaks during the event to announce his hiring as well as the NHL and AHL team affiliations at Enmarket Arena on Thursday. From left: Ghost Pirates CEO and majority owner Andy Kaufmann, team president Bob Ohrablo, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, Bennett, Henderson Silver Kings general manager Tim Speltz and Vegas Golden Knights director of hockey legal affairs Andrew Lugerner.

Kaufmann said team officials had "many conversations" with Bennett and discussed his history at Union. While Kaufmann said he could not comment on the reported incident and investigation, he can speak for the Ghost Pirates, the Golden Knights and the Silver Knights in that they believe in him and are excited about the hire.

"We believe in his character," Kaufmann said Friday. "We think he's special. We think he's going to do special things — not just on the ice but in the community of Savannah. That's really important to us. Not just what can he do for the team and can we win games, but is he going to be part of the humanistic culture that we proudly operate under."

Kaufmann noted the team plans to be involved in the community and Bennett would be part of that.

He also said "several teams at multiple levels of pro hockey" wanted to hire Bennett and that when it was announced the choice was Savannah, Kaufmann received many calls and messages supporting the decision from those who know Bennett.

On Thursday, in being introduced in his first professional hockey job, Bennett said, "it's an honor. I stand in front of you humbled."

He said players on his teams compete hard and are good citizens involved in the community, following their coach's lead.

Long playing career, brief time in NHL

A third-round pick (54th overall) of the Minnesota North Stars in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft, Bennett played briefly in the NHL — 15 games at left wing for the New York Rangers scattered across three seasons in 1989-92.

"I always said it was for a cup of coffee," Bennett, 54, said Thursday.

A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, Bennett was an All-America (1988-89) and Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist (1989-90) as college hockey's top player while at Providence College. His alma mater inducted him into its athletic hall of fame in 2012.

Bennett was in the minor leagues from 1990-99 at the AHL and IHL levels as well as for ECHL teams in Jacksonville, Florida, and Florence, South Carolina, as a player-assistant coach.

Rick Bennett is announced as the first Ghost Pirates head coach on Thursday at Enmarket Arena. The Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliate. © [PHILIP HALL/SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS] Rick Bennett is announced as the first Ghost Pirates head coach on Thursday at Enmarket Arena. The Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliate.

So he knows the Ghost Pirates' league, if not Savannah — yet. He toured the city for the first time Thursday.

"I know as much as the Old Town Trolley told us today in about an hour and a half," Bennett said. "I do have to give a shout-out to Phil (the tour guide) today. It was really impressive."

He doesn't know the makeup of his team — yet. And that's part of the fun and challenge of working for an expansion franchise.

"I think that's an exciting part, molding your team in the summer, who we're going to get from the (AHL) Henderson team," Bennett said, "and we'll work with what we have."

Natalie McKee gets her photo taken with a prop with both the Ghost Pirates and the Vegas Golden Knights logos on it during the event to announce the Ghost Pirates' first head coach and NHL team affiliation at Enmarket Arena on Thursday. Rick Bennett was announced as head coach and the Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliation. © [PHILIP HALL/SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS] Natalie McKee gets her photo taken with a prop with both the Ghost Pirates and the Vegas Golden Knights logos on it during the event to announce the Ghost Pirates' first head coach and NHL team affiliation at Enmarket Arena on Thursday. Rick Bennett was announced as head coach and the Vegas Golden Knights were announced as the NHL team affiliation.

Silver Knights general manager Tim Speltz and Golden Knights director of hockey legal affairs Andrew Lugerner traveled to Savannah for the announcements. Like Bennett, they find the expansion aspect attractive.

"There's really something to be said about when you can start something from scratch and you can build a culture from Day 1, and that was really exciting to us," said Lugerner, who's oganization title also could be salary cap expert. "As we evolve here as an organization and this next tier of players in trying to develop them at the ECHL level, this for us was a perfect fit."

Lugerner used the same description when talking about Savannah and its building, which opened earlier this year.

"It's a first-class facility, which is such an important thing for players," he said. "Players are going to want to play here. When you can be a destination ... people are going to want to play in Vegas. People are going to want to play in Savannah."

Speltz, as GM of the AHL team, also will be a key collaborator with hockey operations in Savannah. He lauded the facility and the amenities for players as well as for fans. Though the veteran hockey executive couldn't judge the game atmosphere without seeing the ice rink with surrounding spectators, he sees reason for optimism.

"The thing that's been really interesting is the passion and the excitement," Speltz said. "The enthusiasm in the community has been unbelievable."

The Savannah Ghost Pirates open their inaugural season on Oct. 22 in Greenville, South Carolina. The team makes its Savannah debut on Nov. 5.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Viva Las Vegas! Savannah Ghost Pirates hockey officials announce NHL affiliation

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