HENDERSON, N.V – Left-shot defenseman Jeff Sharples played 17 seasons of professional hockey, three of them in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings. He was also a proud member of the Las Vegas Thunder, including their inaugural 1993-94 season, and a staunch advocate for growing hockey in Nevada.
“I think hockey in the desert and in Las Vegas was very appealing to a lot of us. The general manager, Bob Strumm, reached out to a bunch of us and asked if we were all interested in playing. The team that we put together had a lot of NHL experience – but the opportunity to come and play in Las Vegas was almost too good to be true.” Sharples said.
“And then when we got here, everybody just loved Vegas. And the community really took us in, and away we went.”
The Las Vegas and wider Nevada community has illustrated that commitment to their hockey teams since the days of the Thunder. The Thunder averaged over 8,000 fans a night during their inaugural season, outperforming every other IHL city save Milwaukee and Atlanta – an especially impressive feat considering that the population of Las Vegas was just 297,326 in 1993.
“Once it caught on, we got 13,000 people, 14,000 down there on Friday and Saturday nights to go watch the Thunder play,” Sharples said. The Vegas Golden Knights carry on that tradition. As of December 7, 2022, the franchise enjoys the highest attendance of the 2022-23 season, averaging 103 percent capacity.
“I think – I go back to Vegas being a service community. And a lot of people in this community, they give. You have to be a special kind of person to work in the service industry, and we have a lot of them in Vegas,” Sharples added.
“I think if you asked a player with the Thunder, or the Golden Knights, or the Silver Knights, they would all comment that the support of the local community is what really makes playing in Vegas special. It’s got everything else – entertainment, weather, easy for families to come in and see you – but the local community and the support is incredible.”
“I think it’s amazing. And, I don’t have a ten-dollar word for it – it’s nice. Years ago the rocker Tom Petty was asked what he’d most like to be remembered for. And I think he said that he’d just like to be remembered.”
“And the fact that they’re remembering the Thunder – the Golden Knights with their 2020-21 Reverse Retros, and now the Silver Knights having a night where the Thunder’s honored – is just really cool. Because we still have a lot of people that played on those teams that never left Vegas, we became locals. The tip of the cap is really nice and really appreciated.”
STATS AND STANDINGS
The Las Vegas Thunder were a professional hockey team that played in the International Hockey League (IHL) between 1993 and 1999. Although founded as an independent team, the Thunder would go on to earn player development deals with the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL, the Knoxville Cherokees and Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL. Two of the team’s regional rivalries – the Tucson Roadrunners and the San Diego Gulls – have found spiritual successors in the AHL today, with the Henderson Silver Knights battling both teams.
The Thunder enjoyed success throughout their tenure in Las Vegas. They made the IHL playoffs in five of their six seasons, twice winning both the Pacific Division and the Huber Trophy, awarded to the team with the most regular-season wins. In 1995-96, their best-ever season, they finished with 122 points in the standings and a record of 57-18-8. However, they fell in the Conference Finals, 4-2, to the Utah Grizzlies.
The Thunder’s all-time points leader is Patrice Lefebvre, recording 553 (158G, 395A) in 429 games played with the franchise. Lefebvre would also win the IHL’s scoring title for the 1997-98 season, scoring 116 points for the Thunder.
Their all-time goals leader is Ken Quinney, who scored 189 goals in 376 games played. Quinney also stands second on the team in points with 413 (189G, 224A) and is the father of current Henderson Silver Knights player Gage Quinney.
Curtis Joseph, who spent 19 NHL seasons with St. Louis, Edmonton, Toronto, Detroit, Phoenix, and Calgary, holds the Las Vegas Thunder record for both best save percentage and goals against average. During the 1995-96 season, he also led the IHL in both metrics with a save percentage of .929 and GAA of 1.99.
The Thunder also boast a number of other notable alumni. Radek Bonk, who spent 14 NHL seasons with Ottawa, Montreal, and Nashville, spent two seasons with the team. He totaled 107 points (49G, 58A) over that timespan. Brent Ashton also joined the Thunder for their inaugural season after 14 in the NHL. He scored 14 points in 16 games.
Manon Rhéaume, the first female professional ice hockey player, suited up for the Thunder during their 95-96 season. She previously played for the Tampa Bay Lightning during a 1992 preseason game, becoming the first woman to play in any of the major North American sports leagues.
Although the Thunder have not played in Las Vegas for 24 seasons, their impact on Las Vegas hockey has been considerable. The Vegas Golden Knights paid homage to them with their 2020-21 Reverse Retro jerseys, patterning the V-stripe pattern on the jersey sleeves and hem on the Thunder’s jersey design. Gage Quinney, who made his debut for the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2019-20 season, became the first Nevada-born player in NHL history.