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On Dec. 14, the Pittsburgh Penguins played the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions against an expansion team less than three months into its first season.
Generally, that’s not a compelling game. It carried great significance for me, though. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and I have friends and family who still live there. On that night, I knew many people in the crowd, from both cities. I reunited that night with three high school classmates who I hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years. They’d traveled to Las Vegas from Pittsburgh to see the game.
I was asked repeatedly before that game who I was going to root for and my answer was always the same: The Penguins.
Of course, it was going to be the Penguins. You don’t really know me if you don’t know I’m a Penguins fan.
I love hockey and have loved it for as long as I can remember, from the time as a child I first went to a Pittsburgh Hornets’ AHL game before the Penguins joined the NHL in 1967. I attended the Penguins’ second-ever home game, bought season tickets starting in junior high with money I made caddying and selling newspapers and it would take an act of Congress to get me to miss a game.
Heck, even now, I have three basset hound puppies all younger than 18 months that I named Crosby, Malkin and Mario in homage to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Mario Lemieux.
I’ve lived in Las Vegas for nearly 30 years, which in the early days, meant it was difficult to watch hockey. When the Penguins first made it to the Stanley Cup final in 1991, the games weren’t shown on television in Las Vegas. Satellite dishes weren’t yet a thing, and so I went every day in the playoffs that year to watch the Penguins at the Las Vegas Hilton sports book.
The Hilton – now known as the Westgate – is a massive book with large screens that show all manner of sporting events. Hockey was so insignificant in Las Vegas in those days, though, that the finals weren’t shown on the big screens in the book. Rather, they were on a TV in a small room off the main book where a handful of people, including me, gathered to watch the games.
I cried tears of joy when the Penguins, who up until that point had generally been a doormat of a franchise, defeated the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 on May 25, 1991, to win the first Stanley Cup in their history.
As I write now, I look at my desk and I have one bobblehead of Sidney Crosby holding the Conn Smythe Trophy. I have ones of Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang holding the Stanley Cup. Of course, I have a Mario Lemieux bobblehead as well as a couple of replica Stanley Cups and I don’t know how many Penguins jerseys. Heck, I even have a Team Canada jersey from the 2014 Winter Olympics with the captain’s “C” on the front and “87 CROSBY” on the back.
Given my love for hockey, it was a no-brainer that I’d purchase season tickets when the NHL announced it had expanded to Las Vegas. I didn’t expect much; I figured the Knights would be mediocre, and would struggle to score goals, but I knew I’d want to watch the great players in the league do their thing, so I bought tickets.
On Oct. 1, I was at T-Mobile Arena for an exhibition game between the Knights and San Jose Sharks that began at 5 p.m. I went home after the game instead of out, and so I wasn’t aware of the tragedy that unfolded a block down the street later that night at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.
A madman shot hundreds of people, and killed 58, from a room in the Mandalay Bay. But given I didn’t turn the television on when I got home after the exhibition game, I didn’t know about the shooting until I started getting text messages the next morning that awakened me.
Friends and family around the world saw the news of the shooting and began to text me, asking if I were all right.
That tragedy, as horrific as it was, brought this community together. Las Vegas is a wonderful place to live, with many great people. The city is badly misunderstood and far different from the stereotypes about it.
The Knights played a huge part in helping the town heal from the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Right away, players went to donate blood and visit victims in the hospital and lend their support in whichever way they could.
On the night of the home opener, the team put on an incredibly touching tribute. The names of all 58 murder victims were displayed on the ice. The Knights treated the event with dignity and respect, hitting all the right notes. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has lived in Las Vegas for more than a decade after having played minor league hockey here, made a compelling speech to the crowd.
He ended by saying, “We are Vegas Strong.”
The crowd roared, and, at that moment, the Knights officially became Las Vegas’ team.
My journey was a bit more complex. Early in the season, the Knights were winning and playing an exciting brand of hockey. Contrary to my belief, they had no trouble scoring goals.
I wore my Team Canada jersey with Crosby on the back to the Dec. 14 game with the Penguins. By that point, I had become a Golden Knights fan, so I didn’t want to rub it in the Knights’ faces by wearing a Penguins’ jersey to the game. But by wearing the Team Canada/Crosby jersey, I was showing support for my team.
That night was goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s return after he missed 25 games because of a concussion. Fleury, of course, helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cup and became one of the most popular players in franchise history.
The Pens-Knights game was fun to watch, fast-paced with great plays at each end.
With about five minutes to go and the Knights holding a 2-1 lead, Fleury made an exceptional save to keep the Penguins from tying the game. The crowd roared and I jumped out of my seat to cheer along with the Knights’ fans.
My wife looked at me and said, “I thought you were rooting for the Penguins.” After all Fleury had been through, falling behind Matt Murray in Pittsburgh and then battling the concussion here, I couldn’t root against him, though.
And I soon realized, I couldn’t root against the Golden Knights. I am from Pittsburgh, but I am a Las Vegan. This is my home. The Knights are my team.
I wear a Golden Knights jersey to every game. I have home and road Fleury jerseys, as well as home and road Nate Schmidt jerseys. I have a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare home jersey, which took me a long time to buy even though I quickly came to enjoy him as a player, because he’d played previously for the Flyers and, well, if you’re a Penguins’ fan, you hate the Flyers. It’s just how it is.
I also have VGK jerseys for Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, James Neal, Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk and Shea Theodore. I have a VGK road jersey that has a captain’s “C” on the front, even though the Knights haven’t had a captain. It has “66 LEMIEUX” on the back and is a tribute to Mario Lemieux. When I had it made, it was going to be my way of showing my love for both teams.
I can’t wear it, though.
I’m a Knights fan and I have to support the Knights.
The transformation is complete. I’ll root for the Penguins against everyone else. Yes, I’ve screamed at the television as they’ve played the Flyers and Washington Capitals so far in the playoffs, and I’ll root my heart out for them in every game they play.
But if the Penguins make it back to the Finals and the Golden Knights are there, there is no longer a decision to be made.
Go Knights go.
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