Making sense of the exceptional, outrageous, impossible Vegas Golden Knights

An otherwise unrepeatable expansion season will be elevated beyond the greatest in professional sports history if the Vegas Golden Knights do indeed lift the Stanley Cup. At a base level, their success is the product of expert talent evaluation transpiring at the precise moment widespread mistakes were made by everyone else. But to discover the finer points of how this all became possible, we decided we needed to experience it for ourselves.

Stick mic and camera in hand with a sweat on in the Vegas heat, we took to loitering at the snaking line outside T-Mobile Arena where fans stood waiting — many for second, third and fourth times — for a Vegas Golden Knights tattoo at a makeshift studio set up by the beer concession. Surrounded by folks willing to have the Golden Knights forever branded onto their skin, it seemed like a reasonable enough opportunity to explore the interrelationship between franchise and fan, though in the back of our minds this might not have been the place we necessarily expected to find an answer to the question that brought us out here in the first place.

Those suspicions were reinforced when the clearly-inebriated and worryingly-sunburned fan we had actively avoided to that point used a combination of slurred words to inquire about our equipment and intentions. So we answered him and, mostly as a courtesy, floated questions back, including one we had been posing to fans, players and experts since the moment we landed in Las Vegas.

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“Why does this team mean so much to the people here, so soon?”

He started out by saying most of the same things that lathered fans preparing to enter a sporting event tend to blurt out. But then his expression turned sober, and the answer became much more earnest.

“It’s been important to see our community finally come together like this.”

He fought back the tears that filled his eyes.

We said thanks and wrapped up the interview.

‘Everything about this city is better’

Each and every one of them deemed disposable by their former franchises last season, the Golden Knights were first brought together by one thing: rejection. Together aggrieved, the situation gave rise to the unforgiving alter ego that would fuel the expansion team’s ambition from the start of the season and through to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Golden Misfits had something special about them.

As it happens, this outcast mentality was, in a way, the first real synergy between hockey team and community. A transient and rapidly developing city, Las Vegas is a destination for many looking for a fresh start.

“We all come here because we think it’s going to be better,” blogger, and transplanted Chicagoan by way of Missouri, Ken Boehlke told us.

It’s been that way, certainly, for every single player logging meaningful minutes for Gerard Gallant, who, if you will remember, was last seen previously in the NHL piling unceremoniously into a yellow taxi after being fired by the Florida Panthers.

But few, if any, have made more of their relocation than William Karlsson. Six goals one season ago, the former afterthought with the Columbus Blue Jackets led the Golden Knights in their inaugural season with 43.

He’s the star Vegas was never supposed to have.

“He came to Vegas because nobody else wanted him or there wasn’t a better place for him to be,” said Boehlke. “And even though it wasn’t his choice — and in some cases that’s the case for people who live here — you come here and realize, ‘Wait a minute, this is better than where I came from.’

“Everything about the city is better, and everything about his opportunity was better.”

‘This is not normal’

They were press-printing ‘HOUSE ALWAYS WINS’ on t-shirts before the Golden Knights gave their fans real reason to make the audacious assertion. Because of course they were. In terms of graphic tee and pun ideation, this one was a lay-up.

Everyone who tours the Las Vegas strip understands what the saying means, at least to a general degree. While it varies from table game to table game, it’s accepted that the odds always rest firmly in the hands of the pit bosses.

It’s why Vegas is shinier, more obnoxious, every time you come back.

Some overcome the percentages and leave with a few extra dollars in their pockets, sure, but the bottom line over the course of the day, week, month and year, will always service the stretch of casinos to which industry in Las Vegas is built on.

The same seems to be happening with its hockey team.

There have been many theories as to how the Golden Knights were able to construct such an incredible home record in the regular season and through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the endless distractions within the rink’s immediate radius (also known as the “Vegas Flu”) being the most popular theory. But how about this one: maybe a city that built itself into a juggernaut with its hospitality might not be all that welcoming.

“It starts with the fact that Vegas is different,” Boehlke began to explain when asked about the competitive advantage that seems to exist in the city.

“When you get off the plane, the airport has slot machines and your hotel room doesn’t really feel like any hotel room you have been in before, and the lobby is a casino with no windows and no clocks. There’s just a different energy.

“So immediately when you come in, you’re not at home. And you know you’re not at home. You may have been here before, but this is not where you’re from. This is not normal.”

This is before entering the arena.

“The bass in the building is so ridiculous that you can’t even breathe at times.” said Boehlke. “You’re trying to focus on winning a hockey game against a team that’s as good if not better than you on the other side and you can’t breathe because your heart is beating so hard because the sound system is so turned up that it’s outrageous.

“It’s just not the same.”

And the fans?

“Loud, obnoxious, energetic. It’s unbelievable. They’re never quiet,” said forward Alex Tuch.

Bracing for a loss in Vegas, opponents of the Golden Knights certainly wouldn’t be the first.

‘He’s exceeded every expectation’

Marc-Andre Fleury had just set the building on fire.

Thirty-five saves, including a desperate two-stop combination on Winnipeg’s hottest sniper, Mark Scheifele, helped seal the Game 3 triumph for the Golden Knights and launched them ahead 2-1 in the Western Conference Final.

Inside the locker room, the atmosphere had reached a mild euphoria.

Eschewing normally-reserved conversations for ones with far more openness and enthusiasm, it seemed as though every Golden Knights player was engaged in that moment. The same was true for Fleury, only under contrasting circumstances.

With only his upper padding removed, Fleury, fighting off beads of sweat in soaked attire, was taking two boys from Saskatchewan on a tour of the Vegas locker room. The private conversation took them from the stick rack to Fleury’s stall, where the star goaltender fit the smallest boy with a few pieces of his equipment. His gold-caged helmet was, predictably, too big.

Fleury exchanged smiles and a few laughs with the boys as the conversation continued, but the atmosphere was noticeably subdued. Darcy Haugan, the boys’ father and the head coach of the Humboldt Broncos who died in the tragic bus crash involving the junior team, was most certainly on the mind of all involved.

The following morning, we wondered aloud to a member of the Golden Knights P.R. team how it was possible for Fleury to settle his emotions in the short time between completing his rescue at the final horn and the moment the locker room doors opened.

“He’s exceeded every expectation,” we were told.

‘Where would the vigil have been?’

It seems inconceivable now, but the marketing machine that has made the Golden Knights the hottest ticket on the Las Vegas Strip was failing the franchise at its outset.

Preseason games lacked any added importance, just as all the other exhibitions did in rinks across the NHL. But more concerning than that, there was barely a fuss when 90 percent of televisions couldn’t access the channel that broadcasts Golden Knights games when the franchise played its first regular season game on the road Oct. 6 in Dallas.

“No one really seemed to care,” said Boehlke.

There were two main reasons for this. One, the city wasn’t yet sold on hockey. And two, four days before the Golden Knights’ first game, a gunman knocked out two windows at the Mandalay Bay and opened fire on the audience at the Route 91 Harvest outdoor music festival at the south end of the strip, killing 58 and injuring nearly 1000.

After the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — a massacre that impacted every single person in the community — what the cable provider may or may not have had a restriction on was absolutely and understandably of little consequence.

This would soon change.

A few nights later, an unforgettably powerful ceremony preceded the Golden Knights’ first-ever home game. The first responders responsible for saving lives were honoured on the ice, then the two teams stood together for an emotionally-charged anthem before Vegas’s unofficial captain, and the only player that made his home in Las Vegas before being selected in the expansion draft, Deryk Engelland, delivered an impassioned speech capped with, “We are all Vegas Strong.”

Soon the players that many fans only knew for the graciousness they showed when they stood in a six-hour line to donate blood (or handed out water bottles if they couldn’t contribute) had the stage to demonstrate what they came to this community to do in the first place.

Four goals in nine electrifying minutes, including one from Engelland.

“We wanted to make sure that we were something fans could look to,” said Colin Miller.

Realization hit soon after: this is how the city would heal.

“What would we have done if we didn’t have the hockey team? Where would the vigil have been? Where would we have all come together to honour the lives of the people that were lost?,” Boehlke said. “I don’t know what have happened (without the team). Would we have gathered around the Vegas sign? I honestly don’t know.

“You went from the most sombre of moments this city has had to waving towels, high-fiving and hugging people you haven’t even met before. And the thought is, ‘Man, this is really cool. And if we didn’t have this, it wouldn’t have been the same.’

“I don’t know how we would have rebuilt without this here.”

Said Erik Haula, “we’ve been in it together.”

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