LAS VEGAS — Today Murray Craven is the vice president of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the newest franchise among the “Big Four” of professional sports (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL).

But three years ago he was happily retired after an 18-year career in the National Hockey League, living and raising his kids in Whitefish. That all changed when his longtime friend and Whitefish neighbor, businessman Bill Foley, drove his boat to Craven’s dock and shared an idea.

“Well, that was a strange one, because it came right out of the blue,” Craven recalled. “We had talked about hockey for many years, because I had known about Bill for many years. That July day when he pulled up, we chatted and as he was pulling off he said offhandedly, ‘Oh, and by the way, I’m going to try to put an NHL team in Las Vegas.’”

Story continues below

Craven thought Foley was crazy and told him so using words not safe for print. But then he realized his friend was serious.

“That conversation launched it really,” Craven recalled. “That’s the first time he showed that Las Vegas was a possibility.”

Flash forward to the present, and Foley has pulled Craven out of retirement and installed him as the architect of the team’s future. After years of uncertainty and red tape, the Golden Knights are a reality – and thriving in infancy, winning at a record clip for an expansion team and attracting fans from the desert and beyond.

“We’ve got lightning in a bottle here,” Craven said. “I think the fast start has certainly helped us. It’s certainly brought people out and grabbed their interest. Now it’s up to us to keep their interest. We’re committed to doing that and that’s going to be an important part of our future.”

The Knights are also committed to growing the sport in other parts of the country where hockey doesn’t have the strongest foothold, including Montana, where the team has multitudes of connections, including market broadcast rights. It started with a preseason caravan featuring players and coaches that made stops in Whitefish and Bozeman.

Foley, a billionaire mogul with a diverse portfolio, spoke to MTN Sports in August about his plans for the team in Montana.

“Montana is really hockey country, so were excited about bringing the Golden Knights here. We’re going to help with some youth hockey ideas in terms of providing some uniforms, jerseys and equipment and skates to some of these junior players,” said Foley. “So we’re just trying to figure out how that foundation would work up here, but we’re going to be really supportive of youth hockey here in Whitefish. And we’ll do it Kalispell, we’ll do it in Missoula and we’ll do it in Bozeman. That’s part of our goal.”

The Golden Knights are all hands on deck in their inaugural season, but as Foley claimed and as Craven is helping implement, the longterm goal is to continue outreach in Montana and create more opportunities for youth hockey leagues and for fans and young players to interact with the team.

“(Hockey) wasn’t ingrained in Montana for many years, but it’s growing,” Craven said. “I think that our presence in the Rocky Mountain territory will help it grow. That’s the owner’s desire, helping out in the youth side of things we can help to grow the sport in the state.”

There certainly are challenges. In much of the state hockey takes a backseat to scholastic sports like football, basketball, wrestling and soccer. It’s far more popular in the eastern part of the state as Craven learned growing up in Medicine Hat, Alberta and living in Whitefish since retiring from the NHL in 2000.

“I’ve watched hockey grow quite a bit in Montana over the last 15 years,” he said. “My kids all played. Throughout the state from Havre to Billings to Glasgow to Miles City, we covered a lot of territory. There is a hockey base in Montana, but it’s about facilities and ice time, which are limited compared to sports like soccer or baseball where each town in Montana has numerous facilities to play at.”

The opportunities will come in the summer time again when the Golden Knights will likely plan another caravan into Rocky Mountain states.

“I think once we get things kind of settled down, then we’ll be able to cultivate those territories,” Craven said. “The Montanas, the Idahos, the Utahs – places that we have opportunity in. I can see the caravan being an annual thing and growing and getting bigger and bigger. There’s many opportunities in Montana at the state fairs to be representative of the game and get it out there, making sure that for people that are in that state, that we’re their team.”