NHL expansion team exceeds expectations for team owner and chairman of Jacksonville-based Fidelity National Financial, lands in Stanley Cup Final.
Jacksonville sports fans fondly remember the Jaguars’ magical 1996 run to the AFC championship game, a remarkable achievement for an expansion team in its second year of play.
But Bill Foley’s Las Vegas Golden Knights have gone one better.
The chairman of Jacksonville-based Fidelity National Financial Inc. is the owner of the hockey team that has shocked the sports world by reaching the Stanley Cup playoff finals in its first year of existence.
“Generally speaking, all the pundits had us dead last in the league,” Foley said in a telephone interview this week.
“I thought that wasn’t going to be the case.”
Still, his team has far exceeded his expectations. The Golden Knights, which didn’t have a roster a year ago, beat the Winnipeg Jets last Sunday to win the NHL Western Conference and will host the first game of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night against the Washington Capitals.
“The guys just really jelled,” he said.
Foley was hoping for maybe 35 wins during the 82-game regular season, which would have been respectable, but not close to making the playoffs.
He had a timetable in mind of making the playoffs in the team’s third year, becoming a contender for the Stanley Cup in the fifth year and maybe winning it in year six.
Foley based that timetable on the growth of the 18-year-olds the team drafted last year, who would be 23 by the beginning of year five.
But with the success of the veteran players the Golden Knights acquired from other NHL teams in the expansion draft in June 2017, the team has a strong mix of veteran and young players.
“Now we’ve still got all these guys,” Foley said.
“We have an opportunity to be a really good team for quite a period of time.”
With the Golden Knights’ success, some people are suggesting the rules were too generous for the team, making too many good players available in the expansion draft. But that’s just revisionist thinking, Foley said.
“The reality was when we were going through the expansion draft, everyone thought we were going to be terrible,” he said.
Longtime NHL owners who have struggled to win may be jealous of the Golden Knights’ quick success, but Foley said he hasn’t heard that from anyone. He only gets to see other owners at league meetings, and they generally don’t talk about hockey, he said.
“I don’t know any of them very well,” he said.
One aspect of the Golden Knights that has caught the attention of nonsports fans is the team’s elaborate pregame shows featuring a knight engaged in battle with the opposition.
“We’re in the entertainment capital of the world. We have to be a little bit over the top,” Foley said.
Foley said he has some input into the pregame shows, and the team has a staff of about 15 people who work before the game to make sure everyone is entertained.
Most tourists think of the Las Vegas Strip of hotels and casinos when they think about the city, but residents rarely visit the Strip and have other interests, Foley said. Just like the Jaguars are an important part of Jacksonville’s identity, bringing a major league sports franchise to Las Vegas was important to local residents, he said.
“We needed something to identify with,” he said.
Foley owns homes in several states, but he sold his Jacksonville area residence and bought a house in the Las Vegas area three years ago as he worked to bring a team to the area. Foley wanted to be a visible presence in Las Vegas and be accessible to the fans, which he thinks helped build community support to get a team.
“I believe that was part of our success,” he said.
Foley has a wide range of business interests, but his primary focus now is on the Golden Knights.
“I’m completely embedded. When I do something, I like to do it all in,” he said.
That means the 73-year-old has had to step back from involvement in other businesses.
He remains chairman of Fidelity’s board and is executive chairman of Black Knight Inc., the Jacksonville-based mortgage technology company spun off from Fidelity.
But he said he will likely give up the executive chairman role at Black Knight, which carries more responsibility than chairman of the board of directors.
Foley last year retired as vice chairman of another Jacksonville-based company spun off from Fidelity, bank technology company Fidelity National Information Services Inc.
“I have stepped back quite a bit,” he said. “I just don’t have the time.”
Foley first came to Jacksonville 15 years ago when Fidelity bought the mortgage technology business from Alltel Corp. Foley had built Fidelity into the dominant U.S. title insurance company over the previous two decades, while it was headquartered in Santa Barbara, California.
But after taking over the Alltel business, he moved the Fortune 500 company’s headquarters to Alltel’s office campus on Riverside Avenue.
Foley is happy he made that decision.
“I loved my time in Jacksonville,” he said. “It was great.”