By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
Welcome to June 12, 2023. It’s an exciting time for hockey in Las Vegas.
The hometown Vegas Golden Knights hold a 3-1 lead in their second Stanley Cup Final in their sixth year of existence, and right in their home practice rink, the local USPHL Premier team – the Las Vegas Thunderbirds – are undergoing an exciting rebrand to take their game to the next level.
“We have recently purchased the Las Vegas Thunderbirds, and we have since changed the logo and unveiled a new website (tbirds.vegas),” said new co-owner Marco Benvenuti, a local Las Vegas entrepreneur businessman. He has purchased the team alongside Allan Creel and Joe Micatrotto II.
“It’s actually an interesting story, because I’m originally from Italy and never knew about hockey or watched it until the Golden Knights came to Las Vegas [for their inaugural 2017-18 season]. Three years ago, I started skating and now I play,” said Benvenuti, selected to be the spokesperson for the new ownership group. “I approached my partners – we’re all entrepreneurs in Las Vegas who know each other through business and hockey – and said ‘it would be cool to buy a new team and put it somewhere in this area.’”
Rather than add a second team in the Las Vegas area, they instead approached the former ownership group of Adam Bonaldi and Corey St. Germain. After a series of discussions, the sale of the franchise was underway. One of the first acts of the new ownership was to combine their new vision for the Thunderbirds with a very well-respected brand in the community. The rebrand undertaken by the new ownership was never going to tinker with the name or the colors. Instead, a new logo was created with the assistance of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program, possibly the first in the history of competitive sports, that reflect the changes brought about by a new ownership.
“We didn’t want to do a full 180-degree change. We love the name, the colors, and the whole story of the T-Birds,” said Benvenuti. “We wanted to create a more edgy and modern look.”
Benvenuti also said that being an openly gay hockey team owner is also a rarity, and makes it especially poignant to announce his participation in the Thunderbirds’ ownership during Pride Month 2023.
Adam Bonaldi is remaining with the Thunderbirds as Special Consultant To Ownership. Among Bonaldi’s duties will be the organization and management of the second annual USPHL Las Vegas Showcase, which enjoyed a successful launch in 2022, featuring teams from the USPHL Premier’s Pacific and Northwest Divisions, as well as the Mountain Division’s Provo Predators (who are moving to the NCDC in 2023-24).
“Adam Bonaldi will again be the host and event manager of the USPHL Las Vegas Showcase, and he will try to blow it up and make it as big as we can imagine,” said Benvenuti. “Adam is very excited, as he had to do everything himself in the past [with the showcase] and now he’ll have a whole support team to assist him.”
The USPHL Las Vegas Showcase – and the Thunderbirds themselves – are returning to City National Arena, in the bustling Summerlin community at the western edge of the Las Vegas urban complex, nestled against the natural beauty of the Red Rock National Conservation Area.
“We definitely wanted to continue to play at City National Arena. It is such fantastic place to bring people together, where they can not only see the Thunderbirds, but also it serves as the practice home of the Vegas Golden Knights. People there can see, smell and experience the NHL,” said Benvenuti.
“Las Vegas has rapidly transformed into a prominent sports hub,” added Co-Owner Allan Creel. “In a span of just five years, Las Vegas has welcomed teams from the NHL, NFL, WNBA, and Triple-A Baseball. Furthermore, it has had the privilege of hosting events such as the Super Bowl and the F1 race. No other metropolitan market in history has expanded its sports sector as quickly as Las Vegas. This underscores the importance of Junior Hockey in Las Vegas. The prior success of the Las Vegas Thunderbirds is merely a precursor to the impressive accomplishments we foresee in the future.”
In addition to the new ownership, logo and website, the Thunderbirds also recently announced their coaching staff for 2023-24, which features a mix of returning and new personnel.
Cory Ward will return as Head Coach after helping lead the T-Birds to their first-ever USPHL National Championship tournament in Utica, N.Y. There, the T-Birds qualified for the Round of 16 out of a two-game play-in round in the newly revamped tournament format. Born in Las Vegas, Ward brought to the T-Birds the experience of a productive pro hockey career that saw stints in the AHL and ECHL following an NCAA Division I career with Bemidji State University.
Joining Ward will be new Assistant Coach Hamilton Whyte. Another Las Vegas native, Whyte was in on the early history of the USPHL, joining the Boston Junior Bruins for the inaugural season and helping them win the Dineen Cup, awarded to the playoff champion of the USPHL’s highest level, currently the NCDC. Whyte went on to play ACHA hockey with New York University, where he helped NYU win an ACHA National Championship.
The Thunderbirds are enjoying an off-season that has seen 10 players from the 2022-23 season earn NCDC tenders to different teams, including with their official NCDC Affiliates, the Ogden Mustangs. The Mustangs will be playing their inaugural season in the USPHL’s Tuition-Free Tier II Conference in 2023-24.
“We want to make the relationship continue stronger with Ogden, our main goal is here to move people up in hockey and move them to college,” said Benvenuti. “Everything that we are going to do in our mission statement will be catered to moving people up.”
Learn more about the Las Vegas Thunderbirds at TBirds.Vegas!