More than 1,500 people jam a rink in the Las Vegas suburbs to watch the NHL’s newest and most surprising team practise. The bleachers at City National Arena in Summerlin, Nev., are full 30 minutes beforehand. Spectators stand six deep along the glass behind the net.
It is a spectacle unseen in any pro market in Canada or the United States. It has been happening since well before the season began. Vegas is the league’s only team to invite spectators to view its workouts every day.
A DJ plays music in the lobby. Dancers entertain. Free popcorn is handed out. A wagging Jack Russell terrier dressed in a Golden Knights sweater is mobbed. Fan after fan kneels for pictures beside Bark-André Furry.
“He is a nice little doggy,” says Vegas goaltender Marc-André Fleury. He stopped, in full gear, to have a photo taken with his namesake last week.
So much for questions about the way hockey would be embraced in the Republic of Wayne Newton.
“I went to my first hockey game last night,” said Michael Gimmellie, transplanted from Cleveland. “My voice was dying in the first three minutes.”
He was so enthralled by the Golden Knights’ 4-2 playoff victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday that he showed up to watch them do drills the next morning. He has gone to a World Series game. He has watched the Browns, but not so often that it soured him on football.
Gimmellie says nothing compares to what he witnessed at T-Mobile Arena.
“It was the greatest sporting event I have ever seen live,” he said. “It was absolutely exhilarating.”
Game 4 of the NHL’s Western Conference final is Friday night.
Doubters said putting an NHL team in Las Vegas was as daring a gamble as spinning a roulette wheel. But a stadium is under construction now for the Raiders of the NFL and the NBA has begun to sniff around, too.
The Golden Knights had deposits for 16,000 season tickets before their arena, a five-minute walk off the Las Vegas strip, was built. A team of castoffs and a remarkable goalie won the Pacific Division in its expansion season and has a 2-1 lead over the Jets in the conference final. The Knights are two victories shy of vying for the Stanley Cup. The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs made it that far was a half-century ago.
“We are a bunch of hockey players that wanted to find a home, and now we have one,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who scored two goals on Wednesday night. He had 30 goals for the Florida Panthers last season before Vegas snapped him up in the expansion draft. “That is the story of our club. It is what has made us a success.
“Everybody wants to show their last team they were wrong.”
Fleury won three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, and was the top player available in the expansion draft. He is playing better this postseason than he ever has. He had 33 saves on Wednesday, a handful spectacular.
“I knew early last season that I was leaving Pittsburgh, so I had a chance to wrap my mind around it,” Fleury said. ”Coming in here, I just wanted to help this team any way I could.
“I would have laughed like anybody else in the room if you told me at the beginning that we would get this far. I don’t think anyone saw us here. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of it.”
The Vegas coach, Gerard Gallant, took the Florida Panthers to the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Early in the next season, he was fired. He landed in Vegas, and brought his assistant coaches along. There is little chance that anyone other than him will win the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s coach of the year. He has taken an expansion team farther than any coach ever has in any major pro sport.
“I didn’t imagine in October and November that we could do it, but come around January, I knew we had a good team,” Gallant said. “A lot of teams can beat anybody and we were in that group. I didn’t know we would go this far, but I knew we had a chance as well as anybody.”
The Golden Knights have done more than win. They have created a stir in a city that is an epicentre of entertainment. Cher is playing at the Monte Carlo Resort, which sits beside T-Mobile Arena. Tickets for her show on Friday night cost US$90. It will cost at least twice that to get into Game 4, if a seat can even be found.
A gunman killed 58 people on the Las Vegas strip on Oct. 1. The Golden Knights scrapped plans for a celebration before their first regular-season home game on Oct. 10. They staged a pregame memorial instead.
A moment of silence was held for 58 seconds.
The city has rebounded from that great tragedy, and has taken its new team to heart. It is the first major pro sports team in Las Vegas.
“They have ignited this city,” said Marco Garcia, a steelworker. “Nothing has ever impacted this town like hockey.”
He has lived in Las Vegas for 43 years. He worked on the arena’s construction for more than a year. On the night the killing spree occurred, he helped pick up people that survived the shooting and drove them to safety.
“What the Knights have done has helped reunite the community,” Garcia said. He cries. “I still get choked up.”
Hockey has found a home in the Nevada desert. Five thousands fans showed up to watch when the team’s nickname and logo was introduced. Items given away during games are being sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Golden Misfits T-shirts and Pacific Division Champion pennants are being sold almost by the minute at team stores.
“Early on, we saw indications of the intense passion fans would have,” said Kerry Bubolz, the Golden Knights president. “But the way people have become engaged has blown me away.”
The game ended on Wednesday night with Vegas holding on. A row occurred between both teams after the game ended.
Fans cheered, and then joined in singing, Viva Las Vegas.