LAS VEGAS – Maybe it’s puppy love that will fade once the first pro sports team in Las Vegas, the NHL’s Golden Knights, begin losing.
Maybe the sellouts at loud and energetic T-Mobile Arena will stop one day, and the adulation will lessen.
Then again, if the sturdy foundation is any indication, this franchise has a chance to be as lasting as slot machines, Elvis impersonators, and Wayne Newton performances on the Strip.
In their hard-to-fathom inaugural season, the Vegas Golden Knights have done more than establish themselves as one of the NHL’s elite teams.
They have uplifted an emotionally wrecked city that, shortly before the shiny new team’s highly anticipated season was about to begin, dealt with horror: 58 people killed at an outdoor concert in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, not far from the Golden Knights’ arena.
Led by Deryk Engelland, a 35-year-old Golden Knights defenseman who has lived in Vegas for 14 years, the players have helped the city heal.
The Golden Knights’ home opener was supposed to be filled with typical Vegas glitz during an extravagant pre-game show that had been planned for months. The shootings changed that. Instead, there were 58 seconds of silence to honor the 58 victims. Engelland took the microphone at center ice and delivered a heartfelt speech, saying he met his wife in Vegas and his children were born there. “I know how special this city is,” he said. Rocking back and forth to alleviate his nervousness as he addressed the sellout crowd, Engelland praised the first responders, and told the families and friends of the victims to “know we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong.”
The fans waved white towels as the Golden Knights players shook hands with the first responders — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, and paramedics — who were saluted on the ice.
Engelland’s message, which opened the tear ducts of many people who watched it: The Knights weren’t vagabonds. Even though most of them had been here only a short time, they had become a group of deeply united “castoffs” – the word used by Vegas center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, a former Flyer – and they felt a strong connection to Las Vegas.
The Golden Knights selected in the expansion draft were unselfish players, Bellemare said, adding that if there was anyone who was even thinking about putting himself before the team, those thoughts disappeared after the Oct. 1 tragedy.
“You had to forget about yourself and just work for the town, because everything that happened was bigger than us,” the France-born Bellamare said before the Flyers outlasted the Knights, 4-1, last Sunday. “Nobody plays for themselves. We want to help the town recover. What happened was tragic, and out of that, we had to step up for the town and be the best people we can be. We had to show the community that we’re not a group that come from another place and don’t care about the town. This is our new home, and we want to take care of it.”
Bellemare paused. “And because we played the right way right from the start, people really appreciate that. The first few games, we didn’t play bad, but we didn’t play unbelievable. But the thing is, we didn’t quit on the game. We kept battling and we won the games, and I think the people of Vegas were like, ‘All right, this is a group of men who won’t quit on us.’ ”
It gave the city something to rally around, Bellemare said, and became a “positive circle because of the impact we had on the town ”
The Knights have been playing to 103.3 percent of capacity during games at home, where they have been dominant. Shrewdly built by general manager George McPhee, the Knights entered Friday atop the Western Conference with a 38-15-4 record and 80 points, and they are favored to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The Flyers are the fastest expansion team to win the Cup from the time they entered the league, seven years after their birth in 1967.
Bellemare said the players have had a simple attitude: “Work as hard as you can because it can help somebody that feels bad today.”
During a break at every home game, Vegas honors those who acted courageously during the shootings. “VegasStrong Heroes of the Game,” flashes the scoreboard while the first responders are introduced to a crowd that stands and applauds with all its heart.
Arnold Marriott, 69, a Vegas Uber driver who has become a new hockey fan, said people in the city walked around in a daze during the first 10 days after the shootings. “Then we decided, you know what, we’re not going to let one person change who we are,” he said.
A lot of the fans who attend Vegas home games are transplanted Midwesterners and Northeasterners whose allegiance is with the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Flyers, among others.
They have quickly become enamored with the Golden Knights.
Take Lenore Vescia Cohen, a longtime Rangers fan who grew up in Queens and moved to Vegas with her husband, Ken, 40 years ago.
“Now I’m a Rangers fans and a Knights fan,” she said.
As for the Knights, she said “the city was so ready for them. When that awful thing happened here, that team – I mean, everybody from the top down – they were everywhere. They were at hospitals. They were at rehab centers. They were in schools. They just reached out to everybody. They brought so much.”
Added Vescia Cohen: “The season was just about to start and they had a lot going on, and they took the time to show they were really part of this community, and it meant a lot to everybody.”
Proceeds from the Golden Knights’ popular “VegasStrong” items went to the families of the Oct. 1 victims, said Larry Wilkins, who sells team merchandise at the city’s airport.
Creating a bond
Sayeed Sykes, a 40-year-old Vegas resident who is a salesman for Grand Canyon Tours, said the hockey team “has brought the city together and made it strong. For so long, we didn’t have a pro team, and it’s given everybody something to look forward to.”
Marriott, the Uber driver, is one of those people.
Originally from Jamaica, he lived in New York for 20 years before moving to Las Vegas in 1999. He was never much of a hockey fan until one of his friends had an extra ticket and took him to a Knights game.
He became hooked.
“I watched them destroy the Maple Leafs,” he said of the Knights’ 6-3 win on Dec. 31. “I mean, totally destroy them. Whoever put this team together knows something about hockey and knows something about personalities because they play so well together. It’s awesome. The people are crazy for them. I honestly didn’t think they’d get that kind of following, but everywhere you go, there’s jerseys, there’s caps.”
Lou D’Andrea, who grew up in Bensalem as a Flyers fan, moved to Vegas three years ago and now cheers for the Golden Knights – even when they played the Orange and Black last Sunday.
A regional distribution and sales manager for Red Bull, D’Andrea wore a Golden Knights cap at Sunday’s game, which was sold out and included about 3,000 orange jerseys worn by Flyers fans.
“My parents and my brother would kill me if they saw me in this hat because they’re die-hard Flyers fans,” D’Andrea said with a smile. “But I have to support the town I live in now.”
D’Andrea said the Knights have brought everybody together. “I think sports in general bring that camaraderie to the city.”
Mike Morgan, 49, a Vegas resident who grew up in Chicago and now has Golden Knights season tickets, said he was surprised by the team’s success. Like most people, he thought there would be growing pains.
“I didn’t expect them to be as competitive,” he said.
But they already have 38 wins – or 30 more than Washington had at the end of its first season, 1974-75.
That explains why, when “Sweet Caroline” is played between periods – Caroline is replaced by the words Golden Knights – the fans serenade their team with lyrics that make the arena percolate.
Where it began, I can’t begin to knowin’…
But then I know it’s growing strong….
Was in the spring…
Then spring became the summer…
Who’d have believed you’d come along.
Not raising ‘drug dealers and strippers’
Like most NHL teams, the Golden Knights are a collection of players from around the world: the United States, Canada, France, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Most of them have bought homes 15 miles outside the Strip in Summerlin, a family-type neighborhood close to the team’s practice rink.
“I don’t think any of them other than Engelland had been to Vegas except maybe to gamble,” said Vescia Cohen, 62, a retired master cook at the JW Marriott in Summerlin. “And now they’re living here and calling it home. They’ve just invested themselves in the community in a way that really means a lot. This is the first major-league sports team we’ve ever had, and I don’t think a lot of people from here knew that guys like that who make a ton of money and are famous actually care about where they live and where they work. It’s just amazing, and people have gone crazy for this hockey team.”
Vescia Cohen said Las Vegas gets a bad rap. “All you hear is ‘Sin City’ and ‘Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ All that kind of stuff. But it’s a great city. We’re just an ordinary town where people work and go to school and raise their kids. The kids play hockey and softball and Little League baseball. We’re not raising generations of drug dealers and strippers.
“It’s a city that is a community, and people really care about where they live and about each other.”
The Vegas Golden Knights are a prime example.