Growing up in Las Vegas, sporting events pass through with the regularity of any convention enjoying a few days in Sin City. For an allotted time, Vegas would morph itself to best suit whichever fans flocked the town: cowboys, NBA junkies, college alumni, people looking for a reason to party.
So when I made the walk from Tropicana to T-Mobile Arena for the first time, it just felt like another one of those events. It was an uncomfortably hot day in October (normal), an ocean of people crowded The Strip (normal) toward T-Mobile Arena and there was a professional hockey game to be played (absolutely not normal).
The buzzing atmosphere, the inflatable decor, and the novelty shirts were all familiar to the scene- but this was different. This time, the shirts said Golden Knights. They said Vegas.
When the NHL said Vegas would get an expansion franchise in June of 2016, it seemed that the excitement stemmed more from the city finally getting a major pro franchise than it did about getting a professional hockey team.
Although hockey is the fourth-most popular sport in America, starting small could hypothetically show that Vegas could handle professional sports, that the temptations around the city wouldn’t be a major issue for the home team, that people would leave behind previous affiliations and root for a team they could call their own.
The name, the jerseys, the expansion draft- each reveal made it feel a little more real. The developmental camps in late-July gave people a preview of what logos looked like on those on the ice, and without knowing it, a sneak-peak at an eventual 37-point scorer.
People were excited, at the very least, to buy gear that said, “Vegas,” without showing affiliation to a college, a minor league baseball team or looking like a tourist. Other than that, people were going to wait and see.
That arm’s length indifference changed, like so many lives did, after the shooting at the Route 91 Festival on October 1.
It’s nearly impossible to separate the shooting from the Golden Knights’ inaugural season. Sports uniting a city after a tragedy is a cliche, but it is a cliche because it is true over and over again.
The city sat in an understandable daze in the week following the shooting as more stories, more reports and more questions came to the surface. Everybody tried to get back into the flow of their lives, which is a strenuous task when so many lives have altered forever, but everywhere I went, people wore “Vegas Strong” across their chests. Often, those words were in black and gold.
On October 10, the night of the Golden Knights’ home-opener, Deryk Engelland ended his speech with, “We are Vegas Strong,” and the bond was instant.
The Golden Knights proceeded to score four goals in the first eleven minutes. Tears turned to elation. They kept scoring. People kept cheering. The wins kept coming.
The wins kept coming for Vegas, despite all logic. It didn’t stop when Fleury went down with a concussion in the team’s fourth game, an injury that would force him to miss the next two months. It didn’t stop when Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk went down with injuries, forcing a fourth goaltender between the pipes.
When Vegas lost six of eight from late-October to early-November, the team responded by winning 12 of 13 from December to early-January, including a 4–3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who would eventually finish on top of the Eastern Conference standings.
That win over Tampa Bay was when it felt real. The Golden Knights weren’t just a Cinderella storyline that stole headlines the first half of the season. They were a legitimate threat. At any point, you could walk up to almost any hockey fan, and you would almost always hear some iteration of “Can you believe the Golden Knights?”
When the team was formed, owner Bill Foley said the goal was to make the playoffs in three years and the Stanley Cup Final in six. By January, the playoffs were only three months from reality, but nobody expected the team to make any noise when the real hockey started in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When the real hockey started April, the Knights continued to do what they had done all season: surprise.
It was fitting that the first series came against the Los Angeles Kings, a heavy team that was at the forefront of doubting Vegas.
The only thing that fizzled in Staples Center was the Kings’ season. Marc-Andre Fleury played the series of his life, stonewalling any chances Los Angeles had and helping the Knights grind out a sweep, winning each game by just a goal.
The San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets fell next, and all of a sudden, the team that didn’t have a roster during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final was now one of the final two playing hockey.
As national media outlets flocked to cover the team, Vegas once again had a chance to shine. The shiniest part of the city went past the most famous 4.2 mile stretch in the world. The brightest lights were on how the community embraced the team, the self-proclaimed Golden Misfits. Although players came from France to Michigan and everywhere between, they saw Vegas as a place that wanted to call them their own.
Everybody asked the same questions about if this was expected internally, or when they knew it was real, or if the support from the city was surprising. It became cliche to ask these questions. It became cliche to talk about the inevitability of it all. It became cliche to talk about the team with Spielberg-levels of wonder.
And that’s fine. Because cliches litter sports. And the Vegas Golden Knights brought every inch of the professional sports experience.
The professional sports experience is not complete until experiencing the utter heartbreak that comes almost exclusively from rooting for a cause one has no control over. In a season that in the moment felt as improbable as it will five years from now, the Knights fell short to a franchise with decades of baggage whose weight could only be offset by lifting Lord Stanley’s cup high in above their heads.
When a team and a city bond, there’s a certain emotional hold and narrative that sweeps the community. When the team faced elimination for the first time, Las Vegas looked at their Knights to prove everyone wrong once more, to flick-and-swish their hockey sticks and conjure up the last bit of magic to pull off the comeback.
It wasn’t meant to be. But then again, what is meant to be isn’t what is most-highly assumed, the Golden Knights being the most obvious case. Vegas has been brewing as an underrated sports town, waiting for its chance to show itself off, and at least for now, Vegas is a hockey town.
Vegas is exclusively a hockey town for the next two years, but a billboard off the I-15 and Russell foreshadow another landscape-altering reality. In 2020, the Raiders are coming. By that time, who knows where the Golden Knights will be as a franchise.
The NFL, despite what seems like neverending divisiveness, is still the most popular league in the country. Regardless of how the Raiders are functioning after two seasons under Jon Gruden at the helm, they’ll pull fans. Raider Nation is one of the most recognizable brands in the league.
Until then, the Golden Knights remain unparalleled royalty in Las Vegas. The Golden Misfits are etched into the city’s history next to the mobsters and entertainers that made their mark before them. The Knights shouldered the weight of a grieving city and pulled it close to the shine of the Stanley Cup trophy.
In a place that thrives off people not from here making irrational choices, the Golden Knights became a long shot in which locals felt safe investing themselves. They proved that all you need is a mutual place to call home and that believing in something worthwhile can make things happen nobody saw coming.