On December 6, approximately 600 Vegas Golden Knights fans packed into The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’ ice rink area. Youth-hockey players, grandparents, twenty- and thirtysomethings with and without kids all assembled for their opportunity to meet, take photos with and talk to a handful of now-star players on our city’s first-ever NHL team. (Roughly 80 percent of them arrived proudly adorned in Vegas Golden Knights gear.) Fans swarmed players on the ice and lines for photos and autographs kept steady at around 200 people throughout the evening.
That overwhelming fan turnout seemed impossible to imagine not long ago. It’s been only three years since December 8, 2014, the date when team owner Bill Foley was “granted permission” by the NHL to “gauge interest” in what would become Las Vegas’ first-ever professional sports franchise.
Photos by Camille Cannon
One year ago, Las Vegas knew only a handful of facts about our forthcoming NHL team: They would play at T-Mobile Arena in the 2017–2018 season and practice at City National Arena in Summerlin; they would be called the Vegas Golden Knights; and … most everything else remained a mystery. The Golden Knights’ “steel gray” home jerseys weren’t revealed until June, and most of the player roster came together over the summer after the NHL expansion draft. Even the team’s polarizing Gila monster mascot, Chance, was kept a secret until a home game on October 13.
“The Vegas Golden Knights shouldn’t aim to win in their first NHL season,” wrote SB Nation’s Mary Clarke in August, two months before the team’s first regular-season game. When the team kicked off October with back-to-back road wins against the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes, Nicholas J. Cotsonika of NHL.com called it an “improbable start.” Those “dramatic wins,” he wrote, helped to “establish the expansion team’s identity.” But what happened next would have an even greater effect on the team’s impact.
On October 10, the Golden Knights played their inaugural home opener just days after the largest tragedy to occur in Las Vegas. “There won’t be any advertisements on the boards tonight,” wrote the usually witty @GoldenKnights Twitter account. “Instead, our boards will reflect who we are. #VegasStrong.” Fifty-eight seconds of silence were observed for the victims of the horrific shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Each player was accompanied onto the ice by a first responder who served selflessly the night of the attack.
Before the puck dropped, defenseman Deryk Engelland addressed the crowd of approximately 18,000. “Like all of you,” he said, “I’m proud to call Las Vegas home. I met my wife here. Our kids were born here. I know how special this city is. … To the families and friends of the victims, we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal.”
“The Golden Knights’ first home game served dual roles,” wrote Mitch Goldich of SI.com, “offering an outlet for the sold-out crowd to look back and remember, and a chance to look ahead.” The 3–0 win against Arizona that night was, at the very least, a welcome distraction from our city’s collective sorrow. It was also an indicator of the new team’s strong commitment to its community, an important factor in determining the success and longevity of an NHL expansion team, especially one planted in the desert.
Since their historic start, the Vegas Golden Knights have played pretty darn well. Their current 19–9–2 record (despite playing with five goaltenders in two months due to injuries) has landed our home team at second place in their division. The team has crushed records set by previous expansion teams and has already won more games than several teams won in their entire first season.
NBCSports.com calls the group “the most intriguing expansion team the NHL has ever seen.” Fittingly so, they are the subject of their own five-episode Facebook web series, The Home Team. And according to analysts at ESPN.com, “the odds are good they’ll make the playoffs.” Why is that a big deal? NHL.com reports that “the average time it’s taken expansion teams [to reach the playoffs] is 11.9 years.”
For all the highlights and headlines the team has stirred up during its first official calendar year, we caught up with the players at a recent practice to ask about their favorite moments thus far … on and off the ice.
What has felt the most surreal?
“Finding out that [I] was [drafted] for the team. For them to call and say they were interested, you want it to happen, but I almost didn’t think it would because I was going to be a free agent. For that to come through was probably the most surreal time. It was a long three-day period. I’m grateful for the selection in coming here.” –Defenseman Deryk Engelland
“Winning my first game in the NHL (against his former team the Boston Bruins). That was something I’ll never forget!” –Goaltender Malcolm Subban
Have you had any “only-in-Vegas” moments?
“I met The Chainsmokers. That’s something that you don’t really do. … It’s not going to happen in Syracuse, New York, where I’m from, that’s for sure! I met them backstage after one of their club shows. It was really cool. That’s a big-time celebrity!” –Forward Alex Tuch
What’s been a standout interaction with the Las Vegas community?
“For me, it was being able to get up and give a speech at [the home opener.] It was a tough, emotional time, but being able to do that … and to have some of the first responders come to the game, to meet them and spend time with them, that meant a lot to me.” –Engelland
“We had a good time visiting the kids who were affected by cancer [at the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation]. We got to draw and paint with them and, hopefully, put some smiles on their faces. That was a fun experience. I did an event at The Cosmopolitan Ice Rink—it was so great to see all the fans come out and want to take pictures. It’s good to see all the love here.” –Forward William Karlsson
What’s been your favorite in-game moment?
“My first goal of the season, against the St. Louis Blues. It was an overtime win. There was a chip on my shoulder [removed] to finally score my first goal for the Golden Knights. It was a special moment for me.” –Karlsson
What has surprised you the most?
“The fans. It’s unbelievable. The city has really gotten behind our team. At the games, we build off of their energy. We get momentum because of it. They’ve been a huge part of our success. It’s awesome. Every time they yell ‘[K]night!’ during the national anthem, I’ve got a huge smile on my face. It’s awesome to be a part of. We feel the energy before the puck even drops.” –Tuch