“Dan, I need to know before the break ends,” started MacKenzie, craning her neck to lock eyes with D’Uva between two computer monitors. “What in the world is happening with this hockey team?”
That has been a recurring question since June 2016, when the NHL decided to put its 31st franchise in Las Vegas. It was asked as the Golden Knights — an expansion team made up of cast-off players from across the league — won 51 games in their inaugural regular season. It was asked as they zipped through the playoffs and into a Stanley Cup finals matchup with the Washington Capitals starting Monday. And now MacKenzie asked how the Golden Knights, a team of misfits predicted to struggle, grew into a massive cultural phenomenon in such a transient town.
The answer, in many ways, transcends the improbability of their on-ice success. The Golden Knights lifted Vegas after a tragic shooting in October and became a constant for people used to rotating acts. Vegas did not have a major league sports franchise before the Golden Knights, and always has shared its defining civic institutions with the rest of the world. Bachelor parties last two or three days. Gamblers come and go. Resorts overflow on the weekends and empty out by Monday morning. But a growing population has worked to shed the “Sin City” label, settled and started families, and struggled to self-identify.
Then Vegas, built on temptation and the hollow promise of victory, got a winner to call its own.
“Everyone who is not from here just thinks of Vegas as The Strip,” said Joe Schoenmann, a local journalist who now anchors “State of Nevada” on KNPR radio. “But it’s an actual real place. It’s maturing. It’s one of the newest big cities in the country, and the Golden Knights are another stage of that growth.”
'We are Vegas strong'
Before the Golden Knights became a team worth rooting for, and before they started to reshape the perception of their adopted city, they had to help it heal.
On Oct. 1, 2017, nine days before the Golden Knights’ first home game, bullets flew over The Strip and into a grassy concert venue across from the Mandalay Bay hotel. Fifty-eight people were killed, and around 850 were injured. Thousands of others, downtown to enjoy the Route 91 Harvest music festival, were left shocked and shaken by the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in United States history.
Vegas’s new hockey team jumped into action, as the players visited victims in the hospital, met with first responders and donated food and drinks to those participating in blood drives. Then came opening night, the team’s first chance to address a city in mourning inside T-Mobile Arena, just a half-mile from where the tragedy took place.
The Golden Knights held a 58-second moment of silence to honor the 58 victims. The name of each victim was projected onto the ice. Then defenseman Deryk Engelland, a 36-year-old who started his family in Vegas, spoke slowly into a microphone as a silent, sell-out crowd stood around him.
“Like most of you, I am proud to call Las Vegas home,” Engelland began beneath a spotlight, and the arena broke into a booming cheer.
“To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” he continued. “We are Vegas strong.”
The lights turned on. The cheers grew louder, and across the next two hours, the Golden Knights started a season-long trend by beating the Arizona Coyotes by three goals. But the moment was bigger than a hockey game, and the Golden Knights were suddenly bigger than a hockey team.
They were representing a city that, more than ever, needed something to lean on. In those moments, after Engelland skated away from center ice and a puck was dropped in his place, a trust was formed.
“What they did in the aftermath of the October 1 shooting, that really linked Vegas with the Knights,” said Andrew Lunsford, a Northern Virginia native who moved here 20 years ago and was one of the team’s first season ticket holders. “It showed that they weren’t just here to exploit the city and leave like everybody else. They were going to be about Vegas, and that is all people here have ever wanted.”
This is a critical point of Vegas’s short history, with second- and third-generation citizens trying to turn it from a gambling tourist center to a respected city. Big empty lots dotting downtown, once symbols of desolation and downturn, are mines of opportunity for local developers. The growth of the surrounding suburbs is marked by the construction of new office buildings and shiny outdoor malls and more public schools to attract families.
Close to 650,000 people now live in Las Vegas proper, with an estimated 2.2 million in the greater region, and some of the country’s biggest investors see it as a fertile sports market. The Golden Knights have been joined by the Las Vegas Aces, a WNBA team moved from San Antonio, and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders will become the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.
“The Knights coming here felt like an arrival for this city,” said Rhett Griffin, an Uber driver who moved to Vegas two years ago to help start a new church. “Every town wants to be a sports town. The Knights are putting Vegas on the map for something other than the vices it has always been known for.”
The center of all those vices is The Strip, a four-mile stretch of casinos running through Vegas like a blood-pumping vein, and it’s covered by the Golden Knights these days.
The towering Statue of Liberty outside New York-New York Hotel & Casino is wearing a black Golden Knights jersey. A statue of Julius Caesar, by the entrance to Caesars Palace, has a Golden Knights goalie stick in one hand and a team flag attached to the other. The Golden Knights logo is on the side of buses and on flashing video screens and on T-shirts dotting crowds that push from one cramped block to the next.
Only illusionist David Copperfield is advertised more, and he is not playing for the Stanley Cup.
“For cities that don’t have a major league sports franchise, there could be a little bit of insecurity or a lower self-esteem,” said former NBA player Greg Anthony, a Vegas native who won a national championship at University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990. “But the city has grown now to a point where it feels like it belongs, and for Vegas, there is a level of justification with the Knights.”
'A little more than ourselves'
So now, what is happening?
D’Uva had to think hard about MacKenzie’s question inside the radio station Friday. Everyone has. The Golden Knights’ run to this point can be explained in broad hockey strokes, with their speed and opportunistic scoring and shutdown goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but their grip on Vegas extends past all that, away from logic or reason, into the psyche of a self-conscious city.
“What makes this really special is how the community has embraced this team,” said D’Uva once the they were back on air, his voice pumping into cars all over town. “Right from the start of training camp.”
By 9:30 a.m. the next morning, with a crowd spilling out of the team store and the parking lot full, the line to get into practice stretched and swelled until it filled nearly half the lobby.
Except most of the Golden Knights weren’t even at the facility yet. They were not scheduled to take the ice for another 90 minutes. Yet here were their fans bobbing to music played by a deejay, waiting for a slim chance to squeeze into the rink, fine with wagering against the odds.
“It’s been pretty crazy all throughout the year,” Golden Knights forward James Neal said Saturday. “And when you win and you have success it helps, but I think with what happened on October 1 and the way the city was hurting, for us we just tried to do anything possible to help people out and that brought us even tighter to the city and made us play for a little more than ourselves and our team.”
Next comes the Golden Knights’ shot at the Stanley Cup, but not before this practice in front of a capacity crowd. As players trickled out of the locker room just after 10:30 a.m., each getting a bigger ovation than the one before, a woman’s voice came over the loudspeaker and said the doors were officially closed. That got a ringing ovation, too. Hundreds of people were still in line and they rushed to the glass window at the front of the rink, they climbed onto picnic tables in the lobby, and they twisted their heads for a glimpse, however brief or obstructed, of their Golden Knights.
Moments later, center William Karlsson drifted onto the ice and waved his arms in the air. The fans wailed. He waved them again, demanding they scream louder, and the noise crescendoed until kids’ faces were red and adults were jumping on the concrete bleachers and the facility sounded like the inside of a crashing wave.
Finally, Las Vegas was heard.