LAS VEGAS – At the time, Nick Bogdanovich thought he was actually giving the Vegas Golden Knights pretty favorable odds. Bogdanovich's William Hill sportsbook listed the city's new hockey team as 250-to-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup in their first year of existence. The true odds before the season, he said, should've been closer to 2,500 to 1.
"Every expert had them finishing dead last or maybe next to last in the Western Conference," said Bogdanovich, William Hill's chief oddsmaker.
With the Golden Knights holding a one-game advantage heading into Game 2 Wednesday night, William Hill could be three Vegas wins away from losing close to $2 million. One bettor is in for $1,000 on a 50-1 ticket. Another has $200 at 200-1. And there are many smaller bets that were placed at 250-1.
Casinos all along the Strip are facing similar circumstances, and the total liability in Las Vegas has been estimated at $5 million to $7 million, which would likely mark the city's biggest loss on futures betting.
"We're going to be wrong, and we'll just have to pay," Bogdanovich said. "That's just the nature of the beast."
These Stanley Cup finals represent a unique case study, a nexus of hometown rooting interests and legal sports wagering. As states across the country consider regulating sports wagering in light of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a federal law that had previously outlawed it, fans may soon have an easier pathway to laying down both a rooting and a financial interest in their favorite teams' games. The series also underscores the risks at play, particularly for the house. In Las Vegas, locals backed the long shot and casinos are now bracing for a big hit.
While seven-figure losses sound big on the surface, casinos are accustomed to occasionally taking their lumps. Jay Kornegay, who runs the sportsbook at the Westgate Las Vegas, likened the potential hit to a really bad weekend during the football season.
With hundreds – and likely many more – of Golden Knights' tickets floating around town, bets made months ago are suddenly big business. PropSwap is a site that serves as a secondary market for sports bets, allowing gamblers to unload active tickets for guaranteed cash rather than waiting for the game or event to take place.
"It's a way for you to get rich and your team can still win," said co-founder Luke Pergande. "Some people might describe it as an emotional hedge."
The biggest Vegas ticket currently listed on PropSwap was originally purchased for $300 at 400-to-1 odds. It would pay out $120,000 if the Knights win three more games. A bettor could buy that ticket right now for the asking price of $95,000.
Pergande knows the risks and rewards. He, after all, bought a $50 ticket back in October at 500-to-1 odds. "I didn't think they were going to win the Cup," he said, "but I knew the number felt off."
After the Knights' hot start, he sold the ticket in November for $550, a tenfold return on his investment. The new owner of that ticket now stands to make $25,000.
"I have no regrets," Pergande said. "I basically hit a 10-to-1 winner and paid my rent. Who's going to cry about that?"
Oddsmakers around town agree that most Golden Knights tickets were purchased as souvenirs, a keepsake for fans to frame and save. Kornegay said he's still heard from fans recently claiming they were convinced back in October the Knights were bound for the finals.
"I don't believe them. 'Oh, I saw this coming.' Sure you did," he said with a chuckle. "Why'd you only bet a whole $10 then?"
There's at least one such hockey fan who's already cashed a big ticket and insists he had a gut feeling before the season that Vegas would reach the finals in their first season. He also predicted they'd face the Caps. Motivated by historical trends and gambler hunches, a Washington man named Howard placed a pair of bets back in early October. (The Washington Post agreed to use only his first name because his bet was made using an online sportsbook.) He felt good about the Caps and Golden Knights and placed $100 on Vegas to reach the finals and another $100 on the Caps to win it all. At 300-to-1 odds, the Golden Knights paid out $30,000 after winning the Western Conference. Howard stands to win another $1,000 if the Caps – at 10-1 odds – manage to hoist the cup.
Howard believed in George McPhee, the Vegas general manager, and felt good about the addition of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He felt strongly that the team and city would respond to the mass shooting in October similarly to the Red Sox, who won the World Series following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. "It dawned on me how tragedy can motivate a team and motivate players to another level [and] inspire a fan base to get more involved," he said.
The hockey team certainly has become a rallying point for Las Vegas, and the arrival of the Golden Knights changed the nature of hockey betting in Las Vegas. It had historically been a low-dollar business for sports books, but the interest in the team sent many new fans scurrying to the betting windows.
The professional gamblers counting on a terrible team were getting crushed from Day 1, and newly converted puckheads kept cashing bets, courtesy of a team that was crushing everyone's expectations.
"Look, I've been in the business since '86. I said I thought it'd increase hockey a little, but nothing significant," Bogdanovich said. "I think the main reason I was wrong is they got off to the fast start and were winning from Day 1. The whole town drank the punch and a lot of them started betting on hockey. Once they started watching, they liked it. They started betting it and they were winning money. And the whole thing snowballed and snowballed."
Kornegay estimates that his sportsbook see 15 to 20 times more action on Golden Knights' contests than other NHL games. And because the Golden Knights usually won – posting a 47-31 record against the spread, including 28-13 at home – local fans who bet with their hearts often walked away winners.
Betting on the home team was largely a new experience for locals. Although sports books have taken bets on UNLV games since 2001, the Golden Knights represented the first big gambling-friendly local sporting event that entire community could rally behind.
Kornegay is a longtime bookmaker, but he's also a sports fan and a Golden Knights season ticket-holder. He knows his employer stands to lose money in this series, but he also knows the team has been a great addition to the local community.
"The majority of us are all rooting for them," he said. "When we're booking games, we're always booking for the best interests of our operation. But when I leave, I can put my fan hat on and root for our team. Everyone here is onboard and happy to have something like the Golden Knights to root for."