A Vegas Golden Knights fan holds a 'Hockey Heals' sign during Game 1. Image by: Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The Golden Knights' season started only days following one of the worst mass shootings in American history, and while no sports team can erase a tragedy, Vegas' post-season success has helped heal their community.
LAS VEGAS – The off day between Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup final were pretty much like any other around here. The Vegas Golden Knights were holding an optional practice and as is the case just about every day, there was a sign outside the City National Arena practice rink that said the following: “Seating is at capacity. We thank you for your support and please come again to see future practices.” While a capacity crowd cheered every goal scored in practice – yeah, we’re talkin’ about practice – the adjacent rink was full of young people adorned in Golden Knights gear learning how to skate.
As has been the case with almost everything that has to do with this team this season, the sublime has become the routine. Any fears the Golden Knights would have trouble regularly selling out the T-Mobile Arena were allayed almost immediately. But what they could not have envisioned was that they would have to give out wristbands to fans coming to watch the team practice and have to turn them away in droves. At Game 1, the scoreboard captured numerous shots of young fans seeing their team compete for the Stanley Cup for the first time. To put that into perspective, there are 50-year-old fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs who have never experienced what those young people have already.
So many things have conspired to make this season in Vegas so unforgettable and one of the most unlikely success stories in the history of professional sports. And all of it happened against the backdrop of the worst mass shooting in American history that came five days before the Golden Knights played their first game and nine before their home opener. The night of Oct. 1, while thousands of people were enjoying an outdoor concert at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a gunman smashed two windows at the Mandalay Bay hotel and opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 people and injuring more than 800 more before being killed by a SWAT team. Suddenly, any plans that the organization had to celebrate its first NHL game had to be changed. And just as suddenly, the Golden Knights, this new team that people around here knew almost nothing about, became part of the healing process.
“It’s hard to fathom, when you sit back and realize that you lost 58 people,” Vegas GM George McPhee said on the eve of the Stanley Cup final.
But it wasn’t just about the 58 people, six of whom were from the Las Vegas area, who died. There were also the hundreds of first responders and regular folk in Las Vegas who were wondering how something so terrible could have happened in their city. There was, and still is, a lot of trauma here. And this is where a run to the Stanley Cup for the Golden Knights can help in a very small way. A hockey team cannot turn the clock back or undo what has been done, but it can provide its own form of healing to a community. The Boston Bruins felt the same way in 2013 when they went to the Stanley Cup final less than two months after the Boston Marathon bombing.
From the beginning, the Golden Knights have done everything right in this respect. From the tasteful opening night ceremony where first responders were celebrated more than the new players, to the 58 seconds of silence to what the Golden Knights have done in the community since, this organization has provided a template for dealing with this kind of thing that the rest of the NHL can only hope and pray it never, ever has to use.
“During our opening night ceremony, that 58 seconds felt like forever,” McPhee said. “So we’ve done our best as a team. We were put on a huge platform that was unexpected that very first night to have a ceremony and to get it right. We did our best to get it right, to be respectful and honor the people and help them grieve and heal and persevere.”
De facto Golden Knights captain Deryk Engelland, an Edmonton native who played for the defunct Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL and lives here with his family full-time, gave a stirring speech the first night that came from his heart. It set the tone for this team and how it would respond to the tragedy. As Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said: “We don’t talk about it a whole lot, but I think we think about it a whole lot. When we come in the dressing room and we go out there and we see that banner up there in the stands, I think the guys think about it a whole lot, but we don’t talk about it a whole lot.”
Engelland realizes that there is only so much a diversion such as a sports team can do in this situation, but it can be a source of healing. By the time the Golden Knights opened their season at home, they were already 3-0-0. And 2:31 into that first game, Tomas Nosek, who provided the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the final, opened the scoring. The Golden Knights, in what would prove to be something that was very much a habit for them, scored again at 4:18 and 6:15 of the first period and were ahead 4-1 on the Arizona Coyotes by the end of the first.
“After that happened your whole goal is to help people heal any way you can,” Engelland said. “Hearing from people around the city that just coming to a hockey game in an environment like this makes it easy to just turn it off for a little bit and not think about what happened. I don’t think it’s one of those things you’ll ever heal from, it’s always going to be there.”
The organization has since done a number of things to continue to process. They’ve met with first responders and one day held a hockey clinic for them. McPhee said the players and coaching staff continue to help in ways that aren’t made public. On May 18, the day the Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final to book their ticket to the Stanley Cup final, a couple that survived the mass shooting named their newborn baby Riley, after Golden Knights right winger Reilly Smith.
The Golden Knights will not bring a single person back, will not be able to help those who witnessed the events that night and are haunted by them or heal the scars on the hundreds that were injured. But that doesn’t mean that in a very small way they can’t do their part to help.
“Sometimes beautiful things follow something like that,” McPhee said. “And the way that this community came together and these people helped each other really was a beautiful thing to witness and experience.”
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