LAS VEGAS — They marched on.
Two hours before the Vegas Golden Knights played their first regular-season home game, a marching band of drummers led a procession of cheerleaders, circus performers, medieval actors and hockey fans down South Las Vegas Boulevard — a couple of blocks away from where last week one of the most horrific tragedies in American history occurred — and towards T-Mobile Arena.
As they went, others joined in. Wearing hockey jerseys and T-shirts, they chanted, “Go Knights go!” and held “Vegas Strong” signs. But mostly they marched — both literally and figuratively.
It was a fitting way to honour a tragedy and celebrate a hockey team. You can’t erase what happened last week. You can’t forget it, either. But together, the hockey team and the city march on.
“It’s amazing to have these guys here rallying behind the community,” said Rob Marquis, a local firefighter who was one of the first responders to arrive on the scene on Oct. 1 when a lone gunman shot and killed 58 concertgoers and wounded close to 500. “It’s been tough. It’s nice to be able to come out and have something else you can focus on, even for a brief while and kind of lift the burden off our shoulders.”
That is what the Golden Knights did in a 5-2 win on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes. They put a smile on peoples’ faces and had them cheering again.
Marquis, who was wearing a Clark Country Fire Dept. hat and a Golden Knights jersey, took a picture with Marc-Andre Fleury and other players as they walked on a roped-off golden carpet into the arena. They thanked him for his service. As a season-ticket holder, he did the same.
“I think they’ve shown great support right from the start,” Fleury said of the fans. “Right from the first pre-season game, they were behind us all the way. We’re the only team here in town and we want to make people proud of us and proud of the team.”
You didn’t have to be from Vegas to feel pride. The shooting, which included victims from all over the United States and Canada, affected us all. The Golden Knights recognized this. The home opener was handled delicately, respectfully.
The circus that Las Vegas does so well would wait until Friday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings. On Tuesday, it was about honouring the victims, as well as their families and the first responders. Players from both teams wore stickers on their helmets that said Vegas Strong. The dasher boards replaced advertising with “Vegas Strong” slogans.
It was an emotional day. Head coach Gerard Gallant said “I could feel myself getting teary-eyed” and Fleury twice had to choke back tears when telling a story about visiting first responders days after the shooting.
“It’s a process here,” said Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who had personally thanked the players before the game for their involvement in the community. “It’s a tough deal that happened nine days ago. But we’re trying to do our part.”
During the team introductions, players walked out with doctors, firefighters, police officers, EMTs and other first responders who had come to aid of so many on Oct. 1, then stood behind them. The Coyotes then filed out onto the ice and, as the Dallas Stars had done during their opener, stood behind the Vegas players for 58 seconds of silence as the names of all 58 victims was displayed on the ice.
“Obviously a first home game is a major event,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “Couple that with what happened last week and it obviously changes the focus and tenor, but it also shows what a major league professional sports team can mean to a community in terms of bringing people together, uniting them, helping them heal from a tragedy and demonstrating the power of distraction.”
The Golden Knights did more than that. They hit a chord. They made it personal.
After the moment of silence, Deryk Engelland grabbed a microphone and gave a lump-in-the-throat speech about how he met his wife in Vegas and how his kids were born here, and promised, “we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas strong.”
It was a spoken from the heart of someone who has lived in Las Vegas for the past 13 years. And it turned into a rallying cry for the team.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said James Neal. “It was impressive. He got us off to a good start.”
Eventually, a hockey game was played. Although, with the Golden Knights scoring four goals on their first seven shots, it looked more like a continuation of the ceremony.
Tomas Nosek scored the first goal at T-Mobile Arena when he beat Antti Raanta with a wrist shot at 2:31 in the opening period. Less than two minutes later, Engelland one-timed a shot from the point past Raanta and then celebrated with the crowd by bouncing his body off the sideboards. Back-to-back goals from Neal, who has scored five times this year, made it 4-0.
“It was on fire,” said Neal, who has scored five of the team’s seven goals to help the Golden Knights to a 3-0 start to the season. “We wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before.”
Indeed, the Golden Knights have given the city something to be happy about. An expansion team that was supposed to be awful this season is now one of only five undefeated teams in the NHL. It won’t last. How could it? And yet, there’s something magical happening in the desert.
“I think the team is feeding off the city and I think the city is feeding off the team, and the players and coming together behind this team,” said Foley. “If we win 12 more, than I’ll be happy.”
It’s early, but after starting the season with back-to-back wins Bettman had joked that “if the team plays too well, there will be a number of teams that will be questioning how good of an expansion draft we gave the Golden Knights.”
Vegas sort of needs that to continue. This is still a tourist city. The people who do live here tend to be transplants.
That can work in the team’s favour in attracting walk-up ticket sales. But it can also be a challenge, when it comes to converting fans from one team to another. The start of Tuesday night’s game was a sell-out. By the start of the third period, when the outcome was already decided, the building started to empty out — perhaps to beat the traffic back to the suburbs or a reflection of the many other entertainment options the team is competing with out on the strip.
“I stayed at the Bellagio when I first came here and was looking for places,” said Neal, “and the people I ran into at the hotel and just in the community while looking for homes were from different hockey towns and had lived here for so many years and were just looking forward to having a hockey team.
“You definitely see lots of people coming in to see their team and to see the Vegas Golden Knights. Everyone I’ve talked to, whether they’re from Pittsburgh or Detroit or wherever, that’s their second-favourite team now. Bringing hockey to Vegas, they have their Golden Knights jerseys and are ready to go.”
That is why building on this first season is important. No one expects a Stanley Cup or even a playoff berth, but the team can earn a lot of goodwill if it continues to stay competitive and gives the fans something to cheer for.
On Tuesday night, they did just that — even before the puck had been dropped.
“Emotionally, it’s just overwhelming,” said Marquis, who then tugged at his jersey and added: “Black and gold. All the time.”
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