By GANNON HANEVOLD
Moapa Valley Progress
What is the effect a sports team can have on a community? What is the effect it can have on its league, and a nation that both loves and needs a story of unity?
Naysayers have questioned the ability of a sports franchise’s success in Las Vegas – a city where sports betting is one of the main selling points. Hockey fans questioned whether or not the team would have a fan base that would even compare the likes of its fellow teams.
They doubted what the quality of play on the ice would be even more. Expectations were low for hockey in the desert. However, the Golden Knights proved all of their doubters wrong, united a city in the worst of its times, and in typical Las Vegas fashion, put on a show.
No expansion team in hockey history has ever achieved to the level that the Vegas Golden Knights did in the 2017-2018 season. Defying all odds to win the Pacific Division and hold the best record in expansion history, the team’s success spoke volumes about the character of the team and the city behind them.
Likely a combination of players hungry to prove their former teams that elected to defer them to the expansion draft wrong and a market that had finally received its first taste of sport, the Vegas Golden Knights are the unlikeliest heroes in professional sports. Perhaps this is why their story will go down as one of the best in the history of competition.
Perhaps just as much as any player on the team, Vegas residents had something to prove for themselves.
On October 1, 2017, fifty-eight concert-goers fell victim to an attack at the heart of the city. It was a time when fear had reached its peak, but at the same time, a city that many outsiders once saw as a simple tourist trap, began to prove that the connection felt between community residents was much deeper.
Just five days later, the Golden Knights played and won their first game of the season on the road against the Dallas Stars. And five days following that, the first regular season game in Vegas history was played just down the street from where the Route 91 Festival took place.
Golden Knights’ defenseman Deryk Engelland joined Las Vegas’ former minor league hockey team, the Las Vegas Wranglers, in 2004. Engelland made a home in the city, falling in love with the atmosphere and personality of Vegas. At the team’s home opener, during a ceremony honoring the 58 victims of just two weeks earlier, Engelland spoke to T-Mobile Arena, the state of Nevada, and the world. “I know how special this city is,” Engelland said. “We are Vegas strong.”
The Knights’ strength in community was equally rivaled by their strength on the ice. Starting the season hot, winning eight of their first nine games, the Knights continued to build steam. Chemistry on the ice was clearly a strength. One could tell from watching just one game, each player cared for one another and shared a common goal in proving their peers wrong.
From General Manager George McPhee, to Head Coach Gerard Gallant, and starting goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury, the team embraced the fact they had been cast off. All three of the aforementioned replaced at their previous franchise, they came into Vegas looking for a fresh start. With the team exceeding expectations, and making deals for veteran players like forward Tomas Tatar and Ryan Reaves, often the toughest player on the ice, the Golden Knights proved they were more than a feel good story.
T-Mobile Arena continued to sell out, and suddenly the Golden Knights developed one of the loudest atmospheres in sports, complete with a Las Vegas show put on in the pregame introductions that featured a live action battle between a Knight and its opponent for the evening. Ranking fourth in home attendance, the team proved that hockey had more of a home in Vegas than any outsider could’ve imagined. Visiting players praised the atmosphere created and its uniqueness to the league.
The season still rolling, and the Knights refused to slow down. By April the team found itself with a Pacific Division crown and a playoff spot. With a sweep of the rival Los Angeles Kings, a 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks, and a 4-1 win in the Western Conference Finals over Winnipeg, the team shrugged off seven-game series’ like they were nothing. Remarkably, a team that had yet to have a single player under contract a year earlier, found itself on hockey’s grandest stage: the Stanley Cup Finals.
This would be end of the road for the Golden Knights, falling to the Washington Capitals in five games. But this is just the beginning of the team’s journey. Shattering records in their first season, uniting a city, and showing the world what Las Vegas truly is was just a start. The Vegas Golden Knights have opened doors for a market that had yet to see its taste of sports. As the NFL prepares to move into town, and the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces begin play, the city stays hungry for more.
The comeback story on the ice – players making their former teams pay for labeling them as replaceable – was phenomenal to play witness to, but perhaps the most impressive comeback story was that of a city that had reached its basement. The city rose from the ashes, through displays of generosity, community, and love of fellow residents.
Why would ice hockey be a success in one of the hottest cities in the nation? Perhaps it was because the story on the ice mirrored the story off the ice. It was only fitting a team of players from all around the world could come to one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet and make it their home.
This is just the start of the road for the Golden Knights. If you haven’t heard by now, Vegas doesn’t sleep for long.