LAS VEGAS -- Jonny Greco grew up wanting to make movies. When he graduated from Full Sail University in Orlando with a film degree 20 years ago, he dreamed of one day telling stories and directing elaborate productions that people all over the country would be talking about.
Greco's dream has come true in an unlikely way with an unlikely team in the midst of one of the most unlikely runs in sports history.
As the vice president of entertainment and production for the Vegas Golden Knights, Greco builds the stories for the start of each home game, which have gone viral during the expansion team's improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. The walls of his office are filled with storyboards of different openings and pictures of various costumes and props he would like to see incorporated into a show that has grown more grand with each round.
"We had two stories planned before each round, one for each possible opponent," Greco said. "So for the conference finals we knew if we played Winnipeg we were going to cut a jet in half on the ice. If we played Nashville, we were going to bring out a live tiger onto the ice and maybe do something with cutting his fake saber-tooth teeth off. Could we have done it? Who knows? But we had the discussions."
When you're in a city like Las Vegas, no idea is too crazy or impossible when it comes to entertaining the crowd.
"The stakes are higher in Vegas," Greco said. "In this town, they can see Cirque du Soleil, they can see David Copperfield, they can see all these incredible shows but this is different, right? It's sports and we want to build that home-ice advantage."
Traditionally, NHL teams show a hype video or a short highlight package to get fans excited before the players take the ice. That concept has turned into a 10-minute theatrical production in Las Vegas that has become a can't-miss event for fans, who take their seats before the dramatic countdown for the show to start. Television networks, which have been showing the openings in their entirety, and bloggers, who post highlights and critiques of the shows before the puck drops, have also gotten into it.
The theme and characters of the stories through each round -- much like with all good trilogies-going-on-tetralogies -- are similar. They begin with sound bites and quotes highlighted on the ice of different players and pundits that doubted Vegas this season, before it transitions to the dramatic voice of the narrator describing the current battle.
"Chapter 1 saw the fall of the kings, Chapter 2 the Knights feasted on shark," the narrator said during the Western Conference finals as images of a king kneeling before a knight and a knight taking a bite out of shark fin were shown on the scoreboard. Archers then came out of a castle erected on one end of T-Mobile Arena and raised their bows and lighted arrows at the logos of all the playoff teams on the ice before they picked each fallen one off, one by one. It's a dramatic moment, and on Monday only two teams will be left -- Vegas and Washington.
In the office before Game 1 on Monday, Greco was talking to Ayron Sequeira, the team's senior director of entertainment production, as he described the scene. "She wanted live arrows with fire being shot across the arena by archers," Greco said. "I'm like, 'What are you talking about?'"
"I don't think that's a crazy idea," Sequeira said.
That one will have to wait until next season. For now, the archers are played by members of the promo team, holding bows for the first time in their lives, and pretending to launch arrows with fake flames -- made from scratch with materials bought at Hobby Lobby -- at the logos on the ice.
The main event is when the villain, played by Zack Frongillo, a dance major at UNLV, comes onto the ice waving the flag of the opposing team, before the arrival of the Golden Knight, played by Lee Orchard, a local DJ who was actually a Medieval Times show director in Europe for seven years. Orchard and Frongillo dual at the center of the ice and the villain's eventual death has seemingly been more dramatic with each passing round. In the conference finals, Frongillo was suddenly lifted into the rafters after he was vanquished, as if he had been ejected from the cockpit of a jet.
"After we beat the San Jose Sharks, Zack texted me like 10 minutes later saying, 'I'll do whatever you want. I'll fly up into the rafters if you need me to,'" Greco said. "I'd never even thought of that. I don't even know if he was joking but I thought of ways we could pull it off. I mean we're playing the Jets. We have to find a way to make someone fly."
In the final scene of the conference finals chapter, a jet projected onto the ice was cut in half by the Golden Knight's sword and went up in flames on opposite sides of the boards as fireworks went off in the castle and the crowd went crazy.
"We thought about putting a jet on a roller-coaster track and having a jet fly through the crowd," Sequeira said. "I still think something like that could work."
That's another idea that will have to wait for next season, but for now the focus for Greco and his team has been on the Washington Capitals and the Stanley Cup Final, since the matchup and schedule became official last Wednesday.
"If we were playing Tampa Bay, that gave us almost 10 days to prepare for our first home game," Greco said. "If we were playing Washington, it was going to be a quick turnaround, which it has been, and because this is a busy city with a lot of great events, Pink, who is insanely talented, is having a concert two nights before Game 1, so we can't go in and rehearse until Sunday, the night before Game 1."
As Greco looks over the storyboard for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in his office and at the costumes and props kept outside, he can't help but think about WWE. If there seem to be some elements of WWE in Vegas' over-the-top opening, it's because Greco was WWE's senior director/live events producer for five years before moving to Las Vegas to join the Golden Knights.
"I thought I was OK at what I did, but I really learned a lot at the WWE," Greco said. "I was like, 'Oh, wow, OK, this is how you do it.' They opened my mind to storytelling. They simplified the stories. It's good versus evil. We have a bad guy come out and then we have the good guy come out. It's Storytelling 101, and you don't have to complicate it to make people care about it."
Prior to his time with WWE, Greco was the director of video productions for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's where he met Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz, who was Cleveland's president of business operations, who knew he needed to add something extra to the Vegas game-day experience in the team's inaugural season.
"We knew Vegas had a reputation for being the entertainment capital of the world, so there was already an expectation about entertainment in this market at a very high level," Bubolz said. "I knew we were really going to have to be great in the game presentation part of our show. I had worked with Jonny in Cleveland, and he got a lot better when he went to WWE. Whether you like what they do or not, they do two things really well: They tell great stories and they put on one heck of a show. It's the good guy versus the bad guy, and there's a lot of that good versus evil in our game presentation."
With about 24 hours left before the first Stanley Cup Final game in Las Vegas, Greco is going through the final chapter of a story he never anticipated would contain four sections, let alone one, when the season began. Meanwhile Sequeira is fielding calls from representatives of celebrities who want to be involved in any way, from making a cameo appearance in the opening to cranking the siren before the game. Everyone wants to be part of the hottest show in Las Vegas.
"This is an entertainment town, and you have to understand that people are choosing to spend their hard-earned money to come to our show," Sequeira said. "We can't control the hockey, but we can control everything else, especially those 15 minutes before the game. Every team has a chunk of time that's the same, from the moment warm-ups are over to the time the puck drops. How each team decides to use that chunk of time is up to them, but we just choose to use it the way Vegas should, and it works for us."